Friday, June 22, 2012

Will This Be On The Turing Test??

I first posted this almost three years ago (August '09). I am reposting it now.

According to the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The phrase “The Turing Test” is most properly used to refer to a proposal made by Turing (1950) as a way of dealing with the question whether machines can think. According to Turing, the question whether machines can think is itself “too meaningless” to deserve discussion. However, if we consider the more precise—and somehow related—question whether a digital computer can do well in a certain kind of game that Turing describes (“The Imitation Game”), then—at least in Turing's eyes—we do have a question that admits of precise discussion. Moreover, as we shall see, Turing himself thought that it would not be too long before we did have digital computers that could “do well” in the Imitation Game.

The phrase “The Turing Test” is sometimes used more generally to refer to some kinds of behavioural tests for the presence of mind, or thought, or intelligence in putatively minded entities.
Alan Turing first proposed this idea in 1950, but nearly 400 years earlier Rene Descartes had written in his Discourses:
If there were machines which bore a resemblance to our bodies and imitated our actions as closely as possible for all practical purposes, we should still have two very certain means of recognizing that they were not real men. The first is that they could never use words, or put together signs, as we do in order to declare our thoughts to others. For we can certainly conceive of a machine so constructed that it utters words, and even utters words that correspond to bodily actions causing a change in its organs. … But it is not conceivable that such a machine should produce different arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful answer to whatever is said in its presence, as the dullest of men can do. Secondly, even though some machines might do some things as well as we do them, or perhaps even better, they would inevitably fail in others, which would reveal that they are acting not from understanding, but only from the disposition of their organs. For whereas reason is a universal instrument, which can be used in all kinds of situations, these organs need some particular action; hence it is for all practical purposes impossible for a machine to have enough different organs to make it act in all the contingencies of life in the way in which our reason makes us act.
If you are still a little fuzzy about exactly what a Turing test is, here is a definition from the Dictionary of Cognitive Science:
The Turing test is a behavioural approach to determining whether or not a system is intelligent. It was originally proposed by mathematician Alan Turing, one of the founding figures in computing. Turing argued in a 1950 paper that conversation was the key to judging intelligence. In the Turing test, a judge has conversations (via teletype) with two systems, one human, the other a machine. The conversations can be about anything, and proceed for a set period of time (e.g., an hour). If, at the end of this time, the judge cannot distinguish the machine from the human on the basis of the conversation, then Turing argued that we would have to say that the machine was intelligent.
But how many of us could pass a "Turing test"? To do so one would have to show that one's actions are not pre-programmed, but that they are appropriate and responsive to one's environment -- in other words, that one is acting in a way that is simultaneously rational and spontaneous. The real issue is whether or not there is someone there -- someone who is choosing deliberately to act in this way. As opposed, that is, to just a machine following instructions given to it by a human being.

To reason means to apply one's capacity for reasoning to situations in which there is no previously agreed upon "right" answer. This, it turns out, is Stoic philosophy 101 - it is the central theme of the opening chapter of Epictetus' Discourses, which in translation is usually given the title "Of the things which are in our power, and not in our power", or something similar. The point being that the only thing that is truly "in our power" is precisely our ability to apply our reasoning and make choices.

There is nothing "robotic" about Epictetus' conception of reasoning. The volitional character of reasoning arises from the fact that it is the only faculty of the mind "which contemplates both itself and all other things." Furthermore, this "rational faculty" is "the only faculty that we have received which examines itself, what it is, and what power it has." The rational faculty, in fact, is the only means we have for making any kind of assessment or choice about anything: "for what else is there which tells us that golden things are beautiful, for they do not say so themselves?" The importance of this, in Epictetus' estimation, cannot be overstated:
That which is best of all and supreme over all is the only thing which the Gods have placed in our power.
What got me thinking about this was a very interesting post over at Prometheus Unbound, which includes a beautiful video by Marina and the Diamonds called simply I am not a Robot (also, here's a UK Guardian article on the band from Sept. '08):
You’ve been acting awful tough lately
Smoking a lot of cigarettes lately
But inside, you’re just a little baby
It’s okay to say you’ve got a weak spot
You don’t always have to be on top
Better to be hated than love, love, loved for what you’re not

You’re vulnerable, you’re vulnerable
You are not a robot
You’re loveable, so loveable
But you’re just troubled

Guess what? I’m not a robot, a robot
Guess what? I’m not a robot, a robot

You’ve been hanging with the unloved kids
Who you never really liked and you never trusted
But you are so magnetic, you pick up all the pins
Never committing to anything
You don’t pick up the phone when it ring, ring, rings
Don’t be so pathetic, just open up and sing

I’m vulnerable, I’m vulnerable
I am not a robot
You’re loveable, so loveable
But you’re just troubled

Guess what? I’m not a robot, a robot
Guess what? I’m not a robot, a robot

Can you teach me how to feel real?
Can you turn my power on?
Well, let the drum beat drop

Guess what? I’m not a robot
Guess what? I’m not a robot

Guess what? I’m not a robot, a robot
Guess what? I’m not a robot, a robot
Guess what? I’m not a robot, a robot
Guess what? I’m not a robot, a robot

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Friday, June 15, 2012

"There have been Witches in all ages."

One of the things that most irritates some modern Pagans about Ronald Hutton is his refusal to admit to the simple fact that there have always been people like us. Pagans living in the 21st century were, as a general rule, not only not born in Pagan cultures, but we were born and raised in an environment openly hostile to Paganism.

In many ways, modern "secular" culture is, in fact, even more antithetical to Paganism than the cultures of medieval Christendom. And yet we have managed, somehow, to find our ways back to the old Gods. To many modern day Pagans it is inconceivable how anyone could deny that even during the darkest of the Dark Ages, at least some people managed to do the same.

As to evidence, there is evidence galore. There is, literally, evidence "high" and "low". That is to say, there is (1) evidence that the masses of European common-folk remained merely "nominal" Christians who were, in their hearts, still "submerged" Pagans (to use the terminology of the modern scholar of anthropology and missiology Alan Tippett), up to the Early Modern period, and there is also (2) plenty of evidence of Paganistical shenanigans among learned (but not, in many highly significant cases such as Marsilio Ficino, Cornelius Agrippa, and Giordano Bruno, by any stretch of the imagination "aristocratic") Mages, Kabbalists, Hermeticists, Rosicrucians, Alchemists, etc. And there is overwhelming evidence of overlap and interaction between "high" and "low" Paganisms, to the point where such a division becomes completely artificial and highly misleading.

The title of this post is taken from the title of Chapter Two of Gerald Gardner's 1954 book Witchcraft Today. That chapter is full of speculations about the history of Witchcraft that have not necessarily stood the test of time (and advances in scholarship) well. But Gardner would have no problem with that, as he makes clear, for example, when discussing his "impression" that the Witch Cult in Britain was the original religion of the pre-Celtic peoples of those isles, and that the Cult slowly changed under the influence of Celtic ideas. For immediately after relating this theory of his, Gardner states matter-of-factly "This is simply a wild guess on my part .... of course, the reverse may have happened; it may have been an orthodox Celtic cult into which more primitive beliefs and practices infiltrated ...."

Here endeth the lesson.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

On "The Platonist golden chain linking Proclos to Plethon." (Niketas Siniossoglou on Plethon, Platonism, Paganism and Mistra)

One important thing to note about the following excerpt from Niketas Siniossoglou's Radical Platonism: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Plethon, is that Siniossoglou traces the history of Mistra as an oasis for "renegade philosophers and humanists", including those like Plethon and Kabakes who have consciously and decisively broken with Christianity, all the way back to the period of Manuel Kantakouzenos, who ruled Mistra from 1349-1380 AD. Furthermore, according to Siniossoglou, this milieu of religious dissidents already existed throughout what remained of Byzantium in the 14th century, and it was only because of the victory of the "Palamite" reaction that they were forced to coalesce in the Peloponnese.

I should also point out that Siniossoglou has made a very unfortunate choice of words in casting Plethon as the "last" ring in the Golden Chain of Platonic Paganism, despite the fact that, as Siniossoglou knows very well, scholars continue to debate the extent, and the nature, of Plethon's influence. In fact, this excerpt starts off with Siniossoglou drawing our attention to Scholarios' concern, more than a decade after Plethon's death, about those who continue to persist in following Plethon's Platonic Paganism.

I have resisted most (but not quite all) temptations to insert comments or add emphases. For references please refer to the original.

p. 119
The Last Ring of the Platonist Golden Chain: the Platonic fraternity of Mistra

Scholarios' Refutio erroris Judaeorum is dated to around 1464, fourteen years after Plethon's death. This is long after Scholarios confronted Plethon's Paganism and physically destroyed the Nomoi. But most significantly, it is long after the rupture with the past signified by the Turkish occupation and the election of

p. 120
Scholarios to the patriarchy. In a note in passing Scholarios recalls his old enemy and considers whether Pagans will still carry on his legacy. There are no Hellenes around, says Scholarios, with the possible exception of any decaying cell credulously following Plethon's nonsense and the deceiving fame of his wisdom. Owing to ignorance, these people may resurrect in their souls the Hellenic error, continues Scholarios, the one extinguished by divine epiphany. This is intriguing. By now more powerful than any other living Greek in the Ottoman Empire, Scholarios is still concerned with the impact that Plethon's personality and fame had on people many years before. Apparently the marginal group of extravagant Pagans that operated in Mistra under the auspices of Plethon was not as yet delivered to the damnatio memoriae normally reserved for religious apostates in Byzantium.

Since the publication of Masai's Pléthon [full title: Pléthon et le platonisme de Mistra (Paris, 1956)] in 1956 the idea of a Pagan ritualistic fraternity operating in the fifteenth century during the last years of Plethon's life has understandably captivated modern researches [although I must insert parenthetically that those who claim to be "Pagan scholars" have gone out of their way to completely ignore Plethon, or to systematically misrepresent him and try in every conceivable way to deny his Paganism and to deny his central importance and influence]. Its influence may be traced beyond the late Byzantine contenxt in the Paganism of the 'soldier of the Renaissance' Marullus Tarcaniota and of Cyriaco d' Ancona. John Monfasani has argued that such a brotherhood may well never have existed. His argument is that the people usually associated with the much-debated fraternity that Scholarios hunted down cannot be conclusively shown to have had any substantial connection to the presumed Plethonean project of reinsituting ancient Gods. For example, the Pagan most famously assocated with Plethon, Raoul Kabakes, 'may have been merely a Christian with some bizarre Paganising ideas. But whatever the extent of his Paganism, it was sui generis, and to a substantial degree independent of Pletho.' Kabakes is credited with collecting the remnants of

p. 121
Plethon's Nomoi after Scholarios destroyed the manuscript. He was one of the people closest to Plethon, shared Plethon's protonationalism, and described himself as a 'Hellene Lakedaemonean'. This man, who studied Julian's Hymn to King Helios, making notes in the margins like: 'Julian: Iamblichus: Sallust: divine men?' and who confessed that at the age of seventy-four, when copying Julian, his pothos for the Sun God was even greater than when he first began to revere the sun at the age of seventeen, can hardly be rehabilitated as a Christian with some bizarre paganising ideas. yet I do not intend to defend Masai's thesis at this point, the core of which seems to me to be able to withstand attacks.

Gregory Palamas, Patriarch Neilos, Philotheos Kokkinos and Scholarios, were worred about paganism as a philosophical paradigm rather than about its ritual and sectarian aspects possibly pursued by by marginal intellectuals. Neilos concluded that according to Barlaam 'there was nothing superior to Hellenic wisdom', and we have seen that here 'Hellenic' encompasses both the late antique sense of 'pagan' philosophical notions and the the Byzantine meaning of 'secular' wisdom. The Palamites would have little understanding of modern periodisation, as well as of our heuristic application of such terms as 'pagan', 'secularism' and 'humanism'. They saw Hellenism and Christianity as intellectual camps vying for hegemony. In this they certainly were at one with Plethon. It might well be that the real members of the Pagan fraternity of Mistra were not ritual Pagans like Kabakes, but philosophical Pagans of a quite different order.

Since 1348 Mistra was the heart of a despotate, a semi-autonomous state ruled by younger members of the Palaiologean imperial family. When Plethon appeared in Mistra around 1409 he found it to be an intellectual outpost nourished by philhellenic theological and philosophical concerns. In the words of Donald Nicol, the 'intellectuals of Mistra were without a doubt a tiny minority, living on an island of culture in what they themselves

p. 122
described as a sea of barbarism and ignorance'. For the present purposes it is worth delving into the history of this circle. This constitutes the last ring in the Platonist golden chain linking Proclos to Plethon.

The intellectual circle of Mistra was largely formed as a collateral result of the hegemony of Palamism in the main theological and political centers. Mistra provided shelter to intellectuals and literati forced by circumstances to leave Constantinople and Thessaloniki. Unable to cope any longer with the new Palamite establishment in Constantinople and Thessaloniki, renegade philosophers and humanists arrived in the Despotate of Mistra first under the reign of the Despot Manuel Kantakouzenos and after 1383 under the reign of Palaiologues. There they formed a circle of little known intellectuals who escaped the status quo of the Palamite Counter-Reformation. The most prominent intellectuals active in Mistra before Plethon, George Gavrielopoulos, known as George the Philosopher, and Manuel Raoul Metochites, appear to have found refuge in Mistra. The activity of copyists in Morea in the second half of the fourteenth century is witness to the profound influence exercised by the Hesychast controversy. The contemporary authors copied are mainly Prochoros Kydones, Demetrios Kydones, John Kantakouzenos and, later, Nikephorous Gregoras. It appears that during this period the Peloponnese witnessed a revival of ancient themes in visual art. This created the ideal framework for Plethon's project.

George the Philosopher and Manuel Raoul Methochites were confessed Platonists, anti-Palamites and well acquainted with Demetrios Kydones, though favouring Plato over Aquinas. George's extreme enthusiasm for Plato and his eagerness to 'listen to Lycurgus' laws' out of 'an extreme philhellenism (το λίαν είναι φιλελλην), as Kydones said of him, have been perceptively seen

p. 123
as anticipating Plethon's Platonism and enthusiasm for Sparta in the next century.

George's criticism of Kydones' fondness of Aquinas highlights the fact that not all anti-Palamites were eventually absorbed by late Byzantine Thomism and that philhellenism presented an alternative even if that meant 'parting from one's friens'. Another good friend of Kydones with philosophical interests who appears to have arrived in Morea in 1381/2 is the adventurer John Laskaris Kalopheros. The monk Agathias also abandoned Constantinople for Mistra under mysterious circumstances and emerges in Kydones' epistles as fully mesmerized by Hellenism. We may surmise that the inclusiveness of the Mistra intellectual circle grew in significance in the aftermath of the final defeat of the mainstream humanist movement. It appears that Kydones maintained contact with this circle of secular intellectuals, functioning as the link between Constantinople and an amalgam of anti-Palamites, philhellenes, and anti-Thomists who opted for a very different path from his. It has been plausibly argued that Plethon may well have known through Kydones about this marginal and remote close-knit group of Hellenising intellectual fugitives who shared a common interest in Greek antiquity, one occasionally bordering on romantic nostalgia. This information might have led Plethon to discover in Mistra the ideal framework for setting up a Hellenic cell beyond the reach of central imperial institutions.

Two factors make this a particularly appealing and plausible theory. First, it has been recently shown that in the fifteenth century the Peloponnese was a site of ongoing political and ideological experimentation. Only faint echoes of the anaemic central authority of Constantinople reached the borderland of the Peloponnese, a country 'under construction', as a modern scholar put it, marred by the mortal conflict between local landowners and the political representatives of Constantinople, that is to say the despots of Mistra and their consellors -- Plethon included. Secondly, we may

p. 124
recall that Kydones turned to Thomism long before his death in 1397 and that George the Philosopher, who had been the mentor of Platonist Raoul Metochites as early as 1362/5 would not take up the task of instructing a new generation into the mysteries of Platonism. Plethon was the only intellectual at the time capable of offering an ideological direction to anyone not sharing Palamite mysticism, Kydones' Thomism or Scholarios' millenarianism -- but also to advise the despots on political matters.

It is plausible that around 1409 Plethon was more than happy to leave behind a philosophically and theologically exhausted Constantinople, to discover a safe haven for his private immersion into Platonist philosophy and to pursue the application of radical reformist measures in a newly established court whose viability required extensive socio-economic experimentation. Beyond the reach of central clerical authorities, Plethon was free to take Platonims to its extreme conclusion, transforming the pre-existing philhellenic ambience of Mistra (one that nevertheless lacked proper spiritual guidance) into philosophical Paganism, able to articulate an alternative to both Palamite Orthodoxy and Thomism.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What is my problem? (In which I inform Caroline Tully that I do not love her.)

So, one of Caroline Tully's fans took offense at my recent post about her, and proceeded to pound out a few paragraphs of substance-free self-righteous indignation in my general direction on his blog: Caroline Tully and one noisy critic... (I am the "noisy critic" in question). As happens so often on teh interwebs, the real fun came in the comments section.

None other than Caroline Tully was the first to comment on the post. She posed the question: What is Apuleius' problem? In all, three different answers were provided to that enquiry.

The first answer was given by Tully herself, who proposed the following explanation for my criticisms of her: "He must secretly be in love with me!" To which I can only reply: No, Caroline, I'm sorry but I don't think of you that way.

The second answer was proffered by Ethan Doyle White, whose original blog post had prompted all this speculation about my "problem" in the first place. Ethan's hypothesis was that I am "an individual who is certainly disgruntled with academia." I replied to Ethan to inform him that the scholars who are praised in my blog greatly outnumber those that I criticize. I provided Ethan with a list of some of these academics whom I have cited with admiration and (sometimes quite lavish) approval, including: Sarah Iles Johnston, Pierre Hadot, Eva Pocs, Jan Assmann, Ramsay MacMullen, Ruth Martin, James B. Rives, Anthony Kaldellis, Niketas Siniossoglou, Christina Larner, Julia Annas, Dorothy Watts, Charles W. Hedrick, Jr, Joscelyn Godwin, Arthur Versluis and Stefano Gasparri.

The third proposed solution to the puzzle posed by Tully came from a blogger named "Phoenix" who at first stated that she had "
no idea who this person is and what his gripe with Caroline is all about," but then immediately added that "the palpable envy and inferiority issues he displays should be apparent to any discerning reader."

I found Phoenix's answer to be the most curious of them all. What is Caroline Tully supposed to have done to create such feelings of envy and inferiority in those unworthy fortunates who behold these accomplishments? I posted that question in the comments section, and, not to put too fine a point on things, I ventured that as far as I was aware, Tully is just a graduate student who has precisely one peer-reviewed academic publication to her credit (and good for her, as far as that goes, which, it must unfortunately be stipulated, is not very far when it comes to inducing feelings of inferiority).

Phoenix did not respond to my request for further information regarding Tully's supposedly intimidating scholarly oeuvre, but Ethan leaped to Caroline Tully's defense and claimed to know of four different "scholarly" publications by her. But three of these publications do not meet even the most liberal definition of "peer-reviewed academic publications" (leaving only the one I had already mentioned as not being, in itself, particularly awe-inspiring).

Now see here, sir! Isn't it impolite to focus on the deficiencies of another person's curriculum vitae? Of course it is. But the thing is, you see, in the first place I was responding to the claim that my criticisms of Tully were motivated by envy, and so I was trying to find out what precisely it is that I am supposed to be envious of?

But in the second place, Caroline Tully has made a point of promoting herself as an authoritative interpreter of "academic research on archaeology and history," while at the same time claiming that those Pagans who criticize her hero Ronald Hutton, or who find value in the work of Marija Gimbutas, a scholar that Tully sneeringly disdains, are unlearned simpletons to whom scholarly research is "a foreign country" and to whom the published works of scholars (or at least those scholars who meet Tully's approval) appear to be written in "an undecipherable language." Therefore, qualms about good manners notwithstanding, Tully has by her own arrogant posturing made the issue of her own rather negligible academic credentials "fair game".

But none of this answers the question: what is my problem??

Well, I'll tell you what my problem is. My problem is this:
When a situation arises in which Pagans do not like what they hear from academics, the conceptual spaces from which they can speak and be heard, and from where they produce their own counter-narratives, are primarily the Internet, self-publishing and the Pagan conference. Particularly in the case of the Internet, the material Pagans produce ends up being more widely distributed and easily accessible than academic texts can ever hope to be. It is at these sorts of sites that some Pagans have assumed the discourse of oppressing the perceived academic coloniser. A recent example that we would all be familiar with is the vitriol generated as a consequence of the criticism by two academic bloggers, Peg Aloi and Chas S. Clifton, of Ben Whitmore’s book Trials of the Moon.

This is part of a larger situation whereby Pagans who dislike British historian Ronald Hutton’s book The Triumph of the Moon have participated in an internet smear campaign against him, motivated by Whitmore’s attempted criticism of Hutton’s work. While the dependence of modern Witchcraft on late nineteenth and early twentieth century scholarship has been evident to scholars for decades, it appears to have only been grasped by the majority of Pagans themselves in the wake of the 1999 publication of Triumph of the Moon. As we know, Wicca’s foundation claim used to correlate with historical research, but the supportive scholarly interpretation of witchcraft popularised by Margaret Murray was discredited in the 1970s. It is obvious that many Pagans, including those that so vehemently oppose Hutton’s work, are unaware of the evolution of witchcraft scholarship. Nor do they understand the rigors of historical methodology, and that Whitmore’s book has, in fact, not in any way demolished Hutton’s research. Anti-Huttonists have gleefully lionised Whitmore, seeing him as a noble “man of the people” defeating the assault by malevolent academics such as Hutton who obviously have the destruction of the Wiccan religion in mind.

A simple internet search reveals that—despite Hutton’s recent article on Witchcraft historiography and Peg Aloi’s review of Whitmore’s book, published in The Pomegranate, and which are both freely accessible on the internet—Whitmore’s Trials of the Moon is thought to have vindicated the Murrayite standpoint and he has been made a hero, fans of his work not understanding that pointing out a few mistakes or omissions does not a successful refutation make. In comments on internet discussion boards, fans of Whitmore freely admit that they cannot tell whether his observations are correct. The important thing is that they seem correct, they claim to take down Hutton, and that feels good so it must be right. Carla O’Harris sums up this attitude with her vitriolic comment on Clifton’s blog: “Hutton is a second-rate hack-artist whose cult is completely undeserving.”
The above three paragraphs are taken from Tully's Pomengranate "opinion piece" that is at the heart of "my problem" (link). Tully makes a very serious accusation, and one that is aimed in part at Yours Truly. Have critics of Ronald Hutton, and especially those who have praised Ben Whitmore's book, Trials of the Moon, engaged in a "smear campaign"? I challenge Caroline Tully or anyone else to answer a few simple questions about this "smear campaign":

1. What are the "smears" that have been made against Ronald Hutton?
2. Who has made these "smears"? In particular, what role does Tully assign to Ben Whitmore in this "smear campaign"?
3. What are the objective criteria applied to determine what constitutes a "smear"? And how do these "smears" against Hutton differ qualitatively from the often personally insulting criticisms that have been directed against Ben Whitmore and other critics of Hutton by Tully, Peg Aloi, Chas Clifton, Ronald Hutton, and others?
4. Can Tully produce specific links to the internet sources that make up the evidence upon which she based her conclusion that an "internet smear campaign" exists?
5. Can Tully produce specific links to internet sources in which Ben Whitmore is "gleefully lionised as ... a 'noble man of the people'", or in which he is referred to as a "hero", or any of the other extravagant and idiotic characterizations she makes about the debate surrounding Whitmore's book?
6. If Tully cannot substantiate what she has written, will she retract it?
7. If Caroline Tully neither substantiates her claim about a "smear campaign", nor retracts her accusation, should anyone take her seriously?

Related linkage:

Monday, June 11, 2012

Christopher Livanos on the 15th century resurgence of Paganism in Mistra

Christopher Livanos is an associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin. His paper, excerpted below, “Monotheists, Dualists and Pagans” appeared in The Byzantine World edited by Paul Stephenson (Routledge, 2010).

Livanos joins with many other contemporary scholars in identifying George Gemistos Plethon as a Pagan, and in identifying Mistra, where Plethon spent the last five decades of his life, as an important center of a "genuine but small resurgence of Paganism". See the bottom of this post for a selection of other contemporary sources supporting these same conclusions.

In my opinion, Livanos' analysis is not without serious defects, especially when it comes to the uses and abuses to which he subjects the terms "monotheist" and "polytheist", and, most specifically, his insistence on finding "monotheistic" tendencies not only in Plethon but also Plotinus and in Pagan Greek philosophers generally. Nevertheless, Livanos' discussion of contemporary sources is quite useful (if far from complete), as is his overview of the dispute between Plethon and his arch-enemy Scholarios.

The following excerpt is presented not as an endorsement of Livanos' views, but only to provide yet another example of contemporary scholarship supporting the contention that underground Paganism is an established fact of European history.

p. 110
The very final years of the Byzantine empire witnessed a genuine but small resurgence of Paganism in the circle of George Gemisthos Plethon of Mistra. The Peloponnese during the late Palaiologan period was also the site of a renewed interest in classical themes in visual art, so Plethon's turn to Paganism did not take place in a cultural vacuum. (30) It is not clear from his surviving work when Plethon abandoned the Christian faith and became a Pagan, but it seems likely that his conversion coincided roughly with the Council of Florence in 1438-9, which Plethon attended. Perhaps the failed attempt at union left him disillusioned with Christianity and in search of another belief system to guide the Greek people.

Plethon attempted to reconstruct the ancient religion of the Hellenes and incorporate into it the best features of other ancient belief systems, especially those of Persia. In addition to the philosophy of Plato, one of his major influences is the book of the Chaldean Oracles, which he believed were written by Zoroaster. (31) Kristeller has argued that what survives of Plethon's philosophy is a hatchet job, made to seem particularly offensive by the editing of Plethon's rival George Scholarios. (32) Kristeller's reading of Plethon is probably colored, however, by his expertise in western Renaissance philosophy. Renaissance humanists in the West commonly used deeply Pagan imagery, although in most cases it would be wrong to question the sincerity of their Christian beliefs. There was likewise a tradition of allegorical, Christianizing reading of seemingly secular, even Pagan, literature in Byzantium, so Kristeller is not without basis. The case that Plethon was indeed a Pagan who sought a revival of the ancient religion was put forward convincingly by C.M. Woodhouse. (33)

One of the most important studies of Plethon undertaken in the two decades since the publication of Woodhouse's book is Polymnia Athanassiadi's examination of Plethon's use of the Chaldean Oracles, which he attributed to Zoroaster. (34) Woodhouse concentrated on Plethon's antiquarianism. Athanassiadi builds upon the work that has been done on Plethon's debt to antiquity, the focus of her article is Plethon's formulation of 'a new spiritual way.' (35)

Although Plethon's Paganism, as Woodhouse demonstrates, was not allegorical, he was an important influence on the tradition of Christian humanist Platonism that flourished in Renaissance Italy, particularly in Florence. The 'Plato versus Aristotle' controversy that bitterly divided Renaissance humanists began in late Byzantium with the divide between followers of Plethon and Scholarios. George of Trebizond, a member of the Aristotelian camp, went so far as to declare Plato and Plethon two of the three most wicked men who ever lived, joining the ranks with none other than Muhammad. (36)

In part, what led Kristeller to suspect that Scholarios creatively edited Plethon to make the philosopher of Mistra's views seem less crude and more allegorical was probably a subtle monotheism underlying the complex belief system that Plethon devised. it is not, as I have attempted to show in this chapter, accurate to equate "Pagan" and "polytheist." However one may choose to define "Pagan," it must surely include Plotinus, whose philosophy was more monist than polytheist in any practical sense. What offended Scholarios so deeply was that Plethon rejected Jesus

p. 111
Christ. Compared to that, the number of Gods Plethon substituted in his place was probably less important in the patriarch's eyes.

True polytheism had since pre-Christian times been exceedingly rare or non-existent in complex learned theology of the sort that interested Plethon. It has been stated that Scholarios distorted Plethon's views in order to enhance the polytheistic aspects of Plethon's beliefs and obscure an allegorical and ore orthodox meaning. There is no reason to suppose that Scholarios misunderstood Plethon's monotheism or that he deliberately hid it. What would have mattered to Scholarios in formulating the opinion that Plethon had lapsed into Hellenism was not the question of whether or not he believed ultimately in one God or in many but the fact that Plethon's God was the One of Porphyry and Plotinus rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

One point in common between Scholarios and Plethon is that both men turned to late antiquity in their search for religious inspiration to guide the Greek people. (37) The two men lived at a time when Greeks and Latins alike were becoming increasingly drawn to the study of the first 500 years of the Christian era. We can look to Byzantium in the mid-fifteenth century to find important influences on several Renaissance humanist traditions, including Protestantism. In one of his letters to a churchman named Joseph, Scholarios wrote that the situation of the Greeks after the Turkish conquest had some similarities to that of the early Church before Constantine. He urged a relaxation of canonical rigor, arguing that the canons did not exist before the Church won the empire and did not need to be enforced in quite the same way now that the Christian empire was no more. Though Plethon did not live to see the conquest of Constantinople, having died in 1450, it was clear to him (as it was to everyone) that the empire was in danger. Like Scholarios, he looked to the time before Constantine for guidance, though he turned to Paganism rather than to primitive Christianity.

Scholarios' religious beliefs were entirely Orthodox, and there is in his work no sense of the reformist zeal that would shake the foundations of western Europe some forty-five years after his death, but it is still significant to the ecclesiastical historian that Scholarios drew a clear distinction between pre- and post-Constantinian Christianity and recognized that church practice was dynamic, evolving and able to change to meet the needs of a changing world. For purposes of this chapter, he is perhaps the villain who prevents us from seeing the Pagan ideas of Plethon in their fullest form, yet, for someone whose motivation was supposedly to censor the apostate and preserve only enough to tell us how horribly Plethon had allowed the devil to delude him, he preserved a tremendous amount of Plethon's Book of the Laws.

One of the most significant contributions of scholarship on Plethon over the past ten years has been to show the diversity of his philosophical influences and his apparent desire to establish a syncretistic, universal religion. Woodhouse was concerned with Plethon's intellectual debt to Greek antiquity. The debt cannot be overstated, but Athanassiadi is right to emphasize what she calls Plethon's "cosmopolitanism." (38) Stausberg (see footnote ) discusses the significance of Zarathustra in Plethon's religious writings in great depth, and Athanassiadi traces possible patterns of influence from the Iranian scholar Sohrawardi through the Jewish esoteric teacher Elissaeus to Plethon. If late Byzantine Paganism was a very minor religion in terms of the number of adherents, it was nonetheless vibrant and internationally focussed, and the influence it had on the Italian Renaissance through Florentine Platonism and the

p. 112
works of humanist scholars such as Marsilio Ficino marks it as a spiritual and intellectual tradition worthy of our attention and respect.

30. Mouriki 1983, "Revival Themes with Elements of Daily Life in Two Palaeologan Frescoes Depicting the Baptism", Harvard Ukrainian Studies Vol. 7, pp. 458-488
31. Stausberg 1998, Faszination Zarathustra: pp.35-923
32. Kristeller 1979, Renaissance Thought And Its Sources: p. 156
33. Woodhouse 1986, George Gemistos Plethon: the last of the Hellenes
34. Athanassiadi 2002, "Byzantine Commentators on the Chaldean Oracles: Psellos and Plethon," in Byzantine Philosophy and Its Ancient Sources, ed. Katerina Ierodiakonou
35. Athanassiadi 2002, p. 251
36. quoted in Woodhouse 1986, 367-8
37. Livanos 2006, Greek Tradition and Latin Influence in the Work of George Scholarios: 89-94
38. Athanassiadi 2002: 251
39. Woodhouse 1986: 357-79

Related posts from this blog:

The Heathen-Minded Humanists: On The Revolutionary Pagan Conspiracy of 1468
Part One provides the background of the struggle between Pope Paul II and the Roman Academy
Part Two describes the crisis of 1468
Part Three (which I haven't posted yet) presents the denouement, in which all charges are dropped and the Heathen Academy survives intact
Part Four tells the tale of the surprising evidence discovered four centuries later of the literally underground Paganism that existed in Rome in the 15th century
Part Five looks at the other Roman Academy and its head, Cardinal Bessarion.

Forsaking Christ to Follow Plato (Or, Was Michael Psellos a Christian?)
  • Part One: Mostly Basil Tatakis' Byzantine Philosophy, with a little help from Jaroslav Pelikan, Katerina Ierandiokonou, John Myendorff, and even C.M. Woodhouse
  • Part Two: N.G. Wilson's Scholars of Byzantium
  • Part Three: Anthony Kaldellis' The Argument of Psellos' Chronographia
  • Part Four: Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles
  • Part Five: Michael Psellos and "Ho Ellênikos Logos" (this is the post you are reading right now)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

More Proclus, Please!

OK, below is another long excerpt from Marinus' Life of Proclus (translation by Kenneth S. Guthrie). This is the entirety of sections 12-26, which comes between the two sections excerpted in yesterday's post (Proclus and Polytheism). Also check out these related posts on Plotinus: Plotinus In Defense of Polytheism, and More on Plotinus on the Gods.

Many interesting facets of Proclean Paganism are illustrated in this passage. For one thing, we see that Aristotle's writings were considered fundamental to a sound philosophical education. This is a very good reminder of the fact that the harmonization of Plato and Aristotle was a core feature of the Platonic Paganism of late-antiquity.

But there is another, even more important point illustrated by what Marinus has to say about Aristotle. First of all, we are told (section 13) that Aristotle's writings form "a kind of preparatory initiation or lesser mysteries," whereas the writings of Plato constitute "the Greater Mysteries" (and notice that despite the "harmonization" between them, Aristotle is unambiguously put in his place with respect to Plato). Moreover, Marinus further emphasizes the need for "proceeding in an orderly manner, and not, as says the Oracle, 'jumping over the threshold.'" Today's would-be mystagogues almost invariably ignore this most elementary lesson even to the point of attempting to read Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus without first studying Aristotle and Plato, and, it should be noted, with sadly predictable results.

In several places we read of Proclus' wide ranging interests in the religious traditions of many different peoples and cultures. Indeed, Marinus tells us (in section 19) that Proclus "regularly observed the great festivals of all peoples, so to speak, and the religious ceremonies peculiar to each people or country, " and also that "a philosopher should watch over the salvation of not only a city, nor over the national customs of a few people, but that he should be the hierophant of the whole world in common."

Another thing that comes through in this excerpt is the ascetic ethos embodied by Proclus, who is praised for his frequent fasting, his "sobreity", and his general disdain for pleasure, including sexual pleasure. This aspect of late-antique Paganism might not be especially appealing to many modern day Pagans, but it must be admitted that it is commonly (although I would argue not universally) found among advanced spiritual adepts around the world and throughout history, and so it can be no great surprise to discover it here.

Section 22 is an especially nice presentation of philosophy as the Pagan spiritual path par excellence. Proclus is here portrayed as the initiate's initiate, and as having attained to such an advanced state of adepthood that he " had no trouble in understanding the whole Hellenic and foreign mythology, even those revelations which had been obscured by mythical fictions; and these he expounded for those who would or could attain their elevation, giving to all of them profoundly religious interpretations, and relating them all in a perfect harmony."

The final section in this excerpt (26) focuses on Proclus' study of Orphism and the Chaldean Oracles, and in particular it tells the story of the writing of Proclus' famous commentary on the Oracles.

12. On taking him into his home, Syrianus presented him to the great Plutarch, son of Nestorius. The latter, on seeing this barely twenty-year-old youth, and on learning of his ardent desire and determination to devote himself entirely to philosophy, was charmed with him, to the point of urgently welcoming him to his lessons of philosophy, although he was often hindered by his age, being already very old. With him Proclus read Aristotle's De Anima, and Plato's Phaedo. After thus proving the student's aptitude for the finer things, Plutarch loved him more and more, continually called Proclus his child, and received him into his house. The great master advised Proclus to record the text of their conversations in writing, and to arouse his zeal, sought to excite his ambition by saying to him that if he completed these notes people would say "It is Proclus who is the author of these commentaries on Plato!"

As Plutarch saw Proclus very rigidly abstaining from flesh food, he advised him not to push this abstinence too far, so as to keep his body vigorous enough to carry on the labors and fatigues of his spirit. He even asked the philosopher Syrianus to endorse this advice about diet, but the latter retorted to the old man, as Proclus himself reported to me, "Let him learn what I want, by following this so rigid a diet; and afterwards, if he insists on it, let him die!" Such was the solicitude that Proclus aroused in his teachers!

After the arrival of Proclus, the old man survived only two years; and, on dying, recommended him to his successor Syrianus with the same instances as his own grandson Archiadas. So Syrianus took Proclus into his own home, made him profit as much as possible from his lessons, and made Proclus share in his philosophical way of life, because he had found in him the disciple and successor he had long been seeking,----someone, namely, who was capable of understanding the sciences in both their multiplicity and diversity, while simultaneously grasping the divine verities.

13. During this season of less than two years, with his teacher, Proclus read all of Aristotle's treatises on logic, ethics, politics, physics, and on the science which rises above all these, theology. Solidly outfitted with these studies, which so to speak, are a kind of preparatory initiation or lesser mysteries, Syrianus led Proclus to the Greater Mysteries of Plato, proceeding in an orderly manner, and not, as says the Oracle, ''jumping over the threshold." So Syrianus led Proclus to direct and immediate vision of the really divine mysteries contained in this philosopher, for when the eyes of the soul are no longer obscured as by a mist, reason, freed from sensation, may cast firm glances into the distance.

By an intense and unresting labor by day and night, he succeeded in recording in writing, along with his own critical remarks, the doctrine which he heard discussed, and of which he finally made a synoptic outline, making such progress that at the age of twenty-eight years, he had composed many treatises, among others a Commentary on the Timaeus, written with utmost elegance and science. Through these prolonged and inspiring studies, to science he added virtue, increasing the moral beauty of his nature.

14. Besides, he acquired political virtues, which he derived from Aristotle's political writings, and Plato's Laws and Republic. He was in this dilemma, that he could not mingle with politics, because his thoughts took a higher flight; and yet he did not wish people to believe that his knowledge was verbal only, and that he made no practical application thereof. So he encouraged Archiadas to devote himself to them, instructing him, explaining to him the political virtues and methods, acting like the coaches who pace runners, exhorting him to direct the affairs of his whole town, and at the same time to render services to individuals, in all kinds of virtues, but especially in justice. And indeed he succeeded in arousing in Archiadas a noble emulation, taught him liberality in financial matters, and munificence, himself making benefactions to his friends, relatives, and fellow citizens, in everything showing himself superior to the vanity of wealth.

Proclus did indeed make important public benefactions, and at his death bequeathed his fortune to Xanthus and Athens, after the decease of Archiadas. The latter indeed showed himself, both by his own nature, and by his affection for Proclus, so sincere a friend of religion that even our contemporaries, when they spoke of him, called him by the venerable name, "the most pious Archiadas."

15. Nevertheless, sometimes he undertook to give political advice. He would attend the public meetings where they deliberated on the town interests, proposed resolutions of a great practical wisdom, conferred with the magistrates on matters appertaining to justice, and not only gave them counsel, but, with a philosopher's boldness would partly constrain them to administer justice generally.

He watched over the honorable character of those charged with public education, obliging them to practice temperance in their public conduct; teaching them the virtues not only by discourses, but also by the actions and occupations of his whole life; making himself, so to speak, an exemplar of temperance. |30

He even displayed political courage in a Herculean degree. For he managed to save his life in the midst of the greatest perils, when he had to weather terrible tempests, when all the unleashed typhoons were shaking his so well regulated life, without letting himself be frightened or discouraged.

One day, indeed, when he found himself the object of the suspicions and vexations of a sort of vultures that surrounded him [i.e., certain Christians], obeying that [divine] Power which starts revolutions in this world, he left Athens and made a journey to Asia, where his residence became most profitable to him. For his guardian spirit (daimonion) furnished him the occasion of this departure in order that he might not remain ignorant of the ancient religious institutions which had been there preserved. Indeed, among the Lydians, he succeeded in gaining a clear conception of these doctrines, while they through long vicissitudes had come to neglect certain liturgical operations, received from him a more complete doctrine, because the philosopher more perfectly conceived what relates to the divinities. By doing this and in thus ordering his conduct, he succeeded in achieving oblivion, even better than the Pythagoreans observed the inviolate command of their master, to "live unnoticed."

After no more than a year's sojourn in Lydia he returned to Athens, guided by the providence of the deity friendly to wisdom [Athena].

That is how was firmly established in him the virtue of courage; first by nature, then by habit, then by science, and then by that practical wisdom which reasons from cause to effect. In another respect he showed that he knew how to put into practice his political art, by writing to the magistrates of towns, and by his suggestions rendering service to entire cities, as he did to the Athenians and the inhabitants of Andros, and elsewhere.

16. As a result of these sentiments he favored the development of literary activity, assisting those who devoted themselves to such occupations, claiming from the magistrates distribution of a living pension, or other subventions suited to their deserts. But in such matters he did not act without full information about the details, nor with any favoritism; nay, he compelled those in whom he took so serious an interest to fulfil their chosen avocations with zeal, questioning them, and examining all the minutiae of their tasks, for he was an excellent judge in all things. If he found someone who complied with his counsels only with negligence, he reprimanded them severely, so that in fact he may have appeared very irascible, and also very sensitive in respect to the consideration due him, because he was both willing and able to make accurate and certain judgements in all matters.

Indeed, he did love honors, but this love of reputation did not in him, as it does in others, degenerate into a passion. He was ambitious of glory only for virtue and goodness, and it is possible that without the energy inspired by this sentiment nothing great might be accomplished in this world.

Yes, I will grant that he was irascible; but he was simultaneously kind, for he was easily appeased, and in the winking of an eyelash his anger would melt like wax. For at the very moment that he was giving a reprimand his tender and sympathetic disposition led him to put the culprit under obligations, and to direct towards them the kind offices of the government.

17. It is fortunate that I should have been led to mention his trait of sympathy, which swayed him more powerfully than any other known man. Never having tasted the joys of family or of marriage,----that is, because he so elected it, having received many propositions very favorable from the standpoint of birth and fortune----having, therefore, remained free from these bonds, he showed such a solicitude for his pupils and friends, and even for their wives and children, that he was looked upon as a common father and as the author of their existence. If any one of his acquaintances fell sick, he implored the gods on his behalf with ardent piety in sacrifices and hymns; then he visited the patient with a zealous solicitude, convoked the physicians and urged them without delay to apply their art, and himself suggested some more efficacious remedy, and thus saved many sick people in most dangerous crises.

As to his humanity towards his most familiar servants, it appears from the last will of this perfect good man. Of all the people he knew, the one he loved best was Archiadas, and after him, those who belonged to his family, especially because he belonged to the family of the philosopher Plutarch, and then because he had been his fellow student and teacher; for of these two forms of friendship which are so rarely recorded among the ancients, that which bound them seems to have been the most profound. There was nothing that Archiadas desired that Proclus did not desire, and reciprocally.

18. After having thus set forth the principle kinds of our philosopher's political virtues, which are crowned by friendship, and which are far inferior to the kinds of higher virtues, let us now proceed to a different kind, the virtues purificatory. For while these have the same function,----of purifying the soul and preparing it to attend freely to human affairs so as to achieve assimilation to God, which is the most perfect purpose of the soul----they do not all operate in the same manner, or to the same extent, some more, some less. Even if there are certain political purifications which give order and beauty to those who possess them, and make them better, even during their sojourn here below, because they impose limits and measure on irascible affections, and on sensual desires, and in general act to suppress passions, and false opinions, the purificatory virtues are superior to them, because they produce a separation that is complete, relieving us from the leaden burdens of the world of generation, and removing the obstacles to our flight from things here below.

These are virtues which our philosopher practiced all through a life devoted to philosophy, by eloquent lessons teaching their nature, how man acquires them, and especially by conforming his life to them, and practicing the actions by which the soul succeeds in separating itself, continually, by day or night, making use of the purificatory practices which woo us from evil, of lustrations, and of all other processes of purification, whether Orphic or Chaldean, such as dipping himself into the sea without hesitation every month, and sometimes even twice or thrice a month. He practiced this discipline, rude as it was, not only in his prime, but even also when he approached his life's decline; and so he observed, without ever failing, these austere habits of which he had, so to speak, made himself a law.

19. As to the necessary pleasures of food and drink, he made use of them with sobriety, for to him they were no more than a solace from his fatigues. He especially preached abstinence from animal food, but if a special ceremony compelled him to make use of it, he only tasted it, out of consideration and respect. Every month he sanctified himself according to the rites devoted to the Mother of the Gods [Cybele] by the Romans, and before them by the Phrygians; he observed the holy days observed among the Egyptians even more strictly than did they themselves; and especially he fasted on certain days, quite openly. During the first day of the lunar month he remained without food, without even having eaten the night before; and he likewise celebrated the New Moon in great solemnity, and with much sanctity. He regularly observed the great festivals of all peoples, so to speak, and the religious ceremonies peculiar to each people or country.

Nor did he, like so many others, make this the pretext of a distraction, or of a debauch of food, but on the contrary they were occasions of prayer meetings that lasted all night, without sleep, with songs, hymns and similar devotions. Of this we see the proof in the composition of his hymns, which contain homage and praises not only of the Gods adored among the Greeks, but where you also see worship of the God Marnas of Gaza, Asklepius Leontuchus of Ascalon, Thyandrites who is much worshipped among the Arabs, the Isis who has a temple at Philae, and indeed all other divinities. It was a phrase he much used, and that was very familiar to him, that a philosopher should watch over the salvation of not only a city, nor over the national customs of a few people, but that he should be the hierophant of the whole world in common. Such were the holy and purificatory exercises he practiced, in his austere manner of life.

That is how he avoided physical sufferings; and if he was overwhelmed by them he bore them with gentleness, and he dulled their keenness by not allowing his most perfect part to grow tender about himself. He showed the strength of his soul in the face of suffering in his last illness. Even when beaten down by it, a prey to atrocious sufferings, he was still trying to conjure the evil. He begged us in turn to read hymns, during which readings the suffering seemed appeased, and replaced by a sort of impassibility. What is still more surprising, he recalled all that he had heard read, even though the weakness which had overcome him had made him apparently lose the recognition of persons around him.

When we read the beginning of a hymn, he would recite its middle and end, especially when they were Orphic verses; for when we were near him we would recite some of them.

It was not only against physical sufferings that he showed insensibility; but when external events would unexpectedly strike him, seeming to be contrary to the usual course of events, he would on the occurrence of such events say, "Well, such are the habitual accidents of life!" This maxim has seemed to me worthy of preservation, because it bears strong testimony to our philosopher's strength of soul.

So far as possible, he repressed anger; rather, he did not allow it to break out at all, or rather it was only the sensitive part of the soul that was thereby affected; these involuntary movements no more than touched the rational part, and that only lightly and transitorily. As to sexual pleasures, I think that he admitted them only in the imaginative degree, and that only very superficially.

21. So the soul of this blessed man went on gathering itself, and concentrating itself, separating itself, so to speak, from its body, during the very time when it seemed contained in him. This soul possessed wisdom,----no longer only the political wisdom which consists in good behavior in the realm of contingent things, and which can seem otherwise than they are----but thought in itself, pure thought, which consists in returning unto one's self, and in refusing to unite with the body to acquire conjectural knowledge. It possessed the temperance which consists in not associating with the inferior element of our being, not even in limiting oneself to setting boundaries to our passions, but desiring to be absolutely exempt from all passion. It possessed the courage which for her consists in not fearing separation from the body. Since in him reason and pure thought were the rulers, the lower faculties no longer resisted purificative justice, and the virtues imparted to his whole life a perfect beauty.

22. Provided with this sort of virtues, without effort, and with a steady stride making constant progress in following the order of the degrees of mystic initiation, he achieved greater and higher [contemplative] virtues, as if led by the hand, first by his fortunate disposition, then by an education founded upon a profound science. For he was already purified from and raised above the world of generation and change, scorning the "many who carry the narthex," who revel therein. He on the contrary intoxicated himself with love for the primary beings. So he had himself achieved seeing directly the really beatific visions from beyond, establishing his assured science not on apodictic and discursive syllogisms, but on what he could contemplate with his eyes, on the intuitions of intellectual activity, on the models contained within divine reason. So he acquired this virtue whose true and proper name is not science, but rather wisdom, sophia, or any other if possible more reverend name.

Conforming all his actions to this virtue, the philosopher had no trouble in understanding the whole Hellenic and foreign mythology, even those revelations which had been obscured by mythical fictions; and these he expounded for those who would or could attain their elevation, giving to all of them profoundly religious interpretations, and relating them all in a perfect harmony.

The writings of the most ancient authors he studied thoroughly, and after having subjected them to criticism, he gathered whatever thoughts he therein found to be useful and fruitful; but whatever seemed to lack force or value he set aside, branding them ridiculous puerilities. What however was contrary to true principles, he very energetically discussed, submitting it to thorough-going criticism, in his lectures treating each one of these theories with as much clearness as vigor, and recording all his observations in books.

For without stint did he give himself up to his love for work, daily teaching five periods, and sometimes more, and writing much, about 700 lines. Nor did this labor hinder him from visiting other philosophers, from giving purely oral evening lectures, from practicing his devotions during the night, for which he denied himself sleep; and further, from worshipping the sun at dawn, noon, and dusk.

23. He is the author of many hitherto unknown theories, that were physical, intellectual, or still more divine. For he was the first to assert the existence of a kind of souls that are capable of simultaneously seeing several Ideas. He had very properly postulated their existence as intermediate between the Mind (Nous) which embraces all things together by a single intuition, and the souls whose discursive thoughts pass, and who are unable to conceive more than a single idea at one time.

If we wished, we might easily mention other doctrines formulated by him,----you need only undertake the reading of his works----which I have at present abstained from doing, in the fear of drawing out this essay too much, by commenting on these details. He who will undertake this work will recognize the truth of all that we have attributed to him.

Still better would this have been realized if one had seen him, if one had basked in his presence, if one had heard him deliver his lectures, and had heard him pronounce such noble discourses at his yearly celebrations of the birthdays of Socrates and Plato. It was quite noticeable that he was borne along by a divine inspiration when he |40 spoke, when from this so wise a mouth flowed in waves the words, which flew like flakes of snow. Then it seemed that his eyes filled with a shining splendor, and all over his face spread rays of a divine illumination.

One day a very distinguished political personage named Rufinus, who was entirely trustworthy and honorable, while listening to one of his lectures, saw a halo surrounding his head. At the close, Rufinus rose, and saluted him with respect, under oath testifying to the divine manifestation of which he had been witness. It was this same Rufinus who offered Proclus a large sum of money on his return from Asia, after his political troubles. Proclus however refused this offering.

24. Let us however return to the subject we had begun above. After having, however inadequately, related what concerns his theoretic wisdom, we must now speak of that form of justice whose dignity equals this sort of virtues. Not like those of which we have spoken above does it consist of a plurality of parts, neither in the mutual agreement of those parts, but in an absolutely proper action, which belongs only to the thinking soul, and which therefore must be independently defined by itself. That which is peculiar to this virtue is that its action absolutely conforms to Mind (Nous) and to God; and this was the eminent characteristic of our philosopher's intellectual activity. For he hardly rested from the fatigues of his daily labors, and while he yielded his body to slumber, not even during these moments did his thought refrain from activity. So, after having early shaken off slumber, as a sort of psychic laziness, when his prayer-hour had not yet arrived because the night was far from having elapsed, alone, in his bed, he composed hymns, examined certain theories, and searched for ideas, which he later committed to writing at the coming of day.

25. He possessed the temperance which accompanies this noetic order of virtues, consisting of the soul's internal conversion towards reason, and the moral disposition which allows itself neither to be touched nor shaken by anything else. In all its perfection, its accompanying courage was manifested by Proclus, who sought to imitate this principle's state of pas-sionlessness, which is imperturbable in its real essence. In short, as says Plotinus, not of the worthy man's life whom political virtue has rendered good and able to live, but, scorning this very life, he exchanged it for another, the life of the gods; for Proclus wished to resemble them, and not merely worthy individuals.

26. He already possessed and practiced these virtues when he was still studying with the philosopher Syrianus, and while reading the treatises of the ancient philosophers; from his master's lips he had gathered the primary elements, and so to speak the germs of the Orphic and Chaldean theology. But Proclus never had the time to explain the Orphic poems.

Syrianus had indeed planned to explain to him and to Syrian Domninus, either one of these works, the Orphic writings or the [Chaldean] Oracles, and had left the choice to them. But they did not agree in choosing the same work, Domninus choosing the Orphic, Proclus the Chaldean. This disagreement hindered Syrianus from doing anything, and then he soon died.

Therefore Proclus had received from him only the first principles; but he studied the master's notes on the Orphics, and also the very numerous works of Porphyry and Iamblichus on the Oracles and other kindred Chaldean writings. Thus imbued with the divine Oracles, he achieved the highest of the virtues which the divine Iamblichus has so magnificently called the 'theurgic.' So Proclus combined the interpretations of his predecessors into a compendium that cost him much labor, and which he subjected to the most searching criticism, and he inserted therein the most characteristically Chaldean hypotheses, as well as the best drawn from the preceding commentaries written on the Oracles communicated by the divinities.

It was in regard to this work, which took him more than five years, that, in a dream, he had a divine vision. It seemed to him that the great Plutarch predicted to him that he would live a number of years equal to the four-page folios he had composed on the Oracles. Having counted them, he found that there were seventy of them. The eventual close of his life proves that this dream was divine; for although, as we have said above, he lived five years beyond seventy, in these he was very much weakened. The too severe, nay, excessive austerity of his rule of life, his frequent ablutions, and other similar ascetic habits, had exhausted this constitution that nature had made so vigorous; so after his seventieth year he began to decline so that he could no longer attend to all his duties. In this condition he limited himself to praying, to composing hymns, to conversing with his friends,----all of which, however, still weakened him. Yet, remembering the dream that he had, he would be surprised about it, and would jokingly say that he had lived no more than seventy years.

In spite of this great state of feebleness, Hegias induced him to take up his lectures again; from childhood this youth showed manifest signs of his ancestral virtues, which proved that he belonged to the family of the veritable golden chain, which began with Plato's ancestor Solon; and with zeal did he study the writings of Plato and the other theologians.

The old man confided to him his manuscripts, and felt great joy at seeing what giant's steps he was taking in the advancement of all the sciences. So enough about his Chaldean studies.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Proclus and Polytheism

Most of this post consists of two excerpts from Marinus' "On True Happiness", the brief biography that he wrote about his teacher, the Divine Proclus. These excerpts paint an unambiguous picture of a fervently religious polytheistic Pagan with a deep and abiding respect for Tradition. (Also see this follow-up post: More Proclus, Please!, and, while you're at it, check out these related posts on Plotinus: Plotinus In Defense of Polytheism, and More on Plotinus on the Gods.)

Among the deities specifically referred to are Athena, Apollo, Telesphorus, Selene, Hekate, Asklepius, Adrotta, the Dioscuri, Cybele, Marnas of Gaza, Thyandrite, Isis, Pan, Hermes, and Attis, as well as "all the Gods and good daimons who watch over the preservation of philosophy."

Other important aspects of Proclus' Paganism:
  • Socrates is portrayed as a divine being worthy of worship and to whom Proclus prays.
  • Proclus had a dream in which he "clearly saw that he belonged to the Hermetic Chain."
  • Proclus' primary teacher in practical theurgy was a woman named Asklepigenia, who was a respected master "in the whole theurgic science".
  • Proclus was especially devoted to the religious traditions of Egypt.
  • Proclus practiced vegetarianism for religious reasons.
  • In section 33 we read that Proclus had a "particular devotion" for Pan, and also was "attached" with great "favor" to Cybele.
The translation is taken from here (where the full text can be found with footnotes):

Excerpt I (sections 6-11)
6. At birth he was welcomed by the Constantinopolitan Goddess Poliouchos [an epithet of the Goddess Athena], who as it were assisted his mother in childbirth. She might have been considered the cause of his life, because he was born in the town she protects and saves; and who, when he reached childhood and youth, made him live well: for she appeared to him in a dream inducing him to follow philosophy. That is how he began so close an intimacy with the Goddess, so that he sacrificed especially to her, and practiced her precepts with the greatest enthusiasm. Shortly after his birth, his parents removed him to their homeland, to Xanthus, a town dedicated to Apollo, and which thus, by some divine chance, became his own homeland. For it seemed no more than fitting that a man who was to become a prince of all sciences should be raised and grow under the influence of the divine Leader of the Muses. The excellent education he received there permitted him to acquire the moral virtues, and to accustom himself to love what duty commands, and to avoid the contrary.

7. That was the time when the great favor of the Gods that he had enjoyed since his birth became most evident. One day he was suffering from a serious illness, and he had been given up for lost when above his bed appeared a child, an exceedingly beautiful boy who, even before he announced his name, was easily recognized as Telesphorus [son of Asclepius]. As he stood near, bending over the pillow, he announced his name and touched the patient's head, curing him of his sickness, and then suddenly disappeared. This divine miracle testified to the favor of the Gods for the youth.

8. For a very short time he attended a grammar school in Lycia, and then traveled to Egyptian Alexandria, already deeply imbued with the moral qualities which charmed the teachers he attended. The Isaurian sophist Leonas, the most celebrated among his fellow philosophers, not only admitted him to his courses, but invited him to become his house-guest, admitted him to intimacy with his wife and children, as if he had been his own son. He introduced the youth to the magistrates who were governing Egypt, who received him among their most intimate friends, charmed with the youth's natural mental vivacity and his manners, distinction and dignity. He frequented the school of the grammarian Orion, who was a descendant of an ancient Egyptian priestly caste, and who was so learned in the practice of his art that he himself composed works very useful to posterity.

Then he attended the lessons of Roman teachers, and rapidly made great progress in their curriculum; for at the beginning he proposed to follow the legal career of his father, who had thereby made himself famous in the capital.

While he was still young, he took much delight in rhetoric, for he had not yet become acquainted with philosophical studies. In rhetoric he even became celebrated, capturing the admiration of his fellow students and his teachers by his fine flow of language, by his facility in assimilating this art, and by his appearing a teacher rather than a student both by his proficiency and diplomacy.

9. He was still studying when Leonas invited him to share his journey to Constantinople, which he had undertaken as a favor to Theodorus, the Alexandrian governor, a man of great distinction, liberality and friendliness to philosophy. The youth accompanied his teacher with much pleasure, so as not to interrupt his studies. But, after all, this was exceedingly providential, as it brought him back to the influence of the Goddess who had been the cause of his birth [Athena].

For on his arrival the Goddess advised him to devote himself up to philosophy, and to attend the Athenian schools. So he said farewell to rhetoric, and to his other former studies, and first returning to Alexandria, he attended only what philosophical courses were there given. To begin his study of Aristotle's philosophy he attended the instruction of the Younger Olympiodorus, whose reputation was very extensive. For mathematics, he trusted himself to Heron, a very pious person, who possessed and practiced the best methods of his art.

These teachers were so charmed with the virtues of this youth that Olympiodorus, who had a daughter who was acquainted with philosophy wished to betroth her to him; and Heron did not hesitate to initiate him into all his ideas about religion, and to make him his continuous companion.

Now it seems that Olympiodorus possessed such a gift of speech, that he talked too rapidly and indistinctly, and only a few of his auditors understood him. One day, at the close of the lecture, Proclus repeated the whole lecture to his fellow students, word by word, from memory. It had been very long, but Proclus missed nothing, as I have been informed by one of the other auditors, Ulpian of Gaza, who had also devoted his whole life to philosophy.

Proclus easily understood Aristotle's treatises on logic, at the first reading, though they are difficult to comprehend by beginners.

10. After having studied under the teachers in Alexandria, and having profited by their lessons according to their talent and science, it seemed to him, one day on reading an author with his teacher, that the latter's explanation of the passage had failed to represent the author's meaning. So he looked upon these schools with scorn, and simultaneously remembering the divine vision that had visited him in Constantinople, and the command which it had brought him, he embarked for Athens, so to speak under the escort of [divine] oracles and all the Gods and good daimons who watch over the preservation of philosophy. For he was being sent there by the Gods of philosophy to preserve the school of Plato in its truth and pureness. This was clearly demonstrated by the circumstances of his arrival, and the really divine symbols which clearly prognosticated the function which he was to inherit from his 'father' and the election which was, one day, to call him to the direction and administration of the School.

For at his landing in the Piraeus, and as soon as his arrival was bruited about in Athens, Nicholaus, who was later to become so famous as a sophist, and who at this time was pursuing his studies here, came to the harbor to welcome him, and to offer him hospitality, as he was acquainted with him personally, and was his co-national, from Lycia. So Nicholaus led him to the town; but on the way, having arrived at the monument to Socrates, Proclus felt himself tired of walking. Now he did not know, and had never heard tell that there existed there a place sacred |25 to Socrates. Yet he begged Nicholaus to stop there a moment, so he might sit down to rest, and asked him to fetch him a little water, from any place at all, for, said he, "I am dying of thirst." Nicholaus, very anxious, had some brought him, not from any chance place, but from the consecrated shrine itself, for the spring of Socrates' Pillar was not far off. After Proclus had drunk, Nicholaus suddenly saw in this a symbol, and told him that he was resting in a place consecrated to Socrates, and that the water he had drunk, the first Attic water he had tasted, was from this source. So Proclus rose, and before proceeding, offered a prayer.

As he was arriving at the fortified gate, at the entrance he met the porter, who was already preparing to insert his keys in the lock, and he actually said to Proclus: "Really, if you had not arrived, I should have closed!" Could there have been a clearer omen, and one whose interpretation would need neither a Polles, nor a Melampus, nor any other?

11. Although he was anxiously invited by the teachers of eloquence, as if he had come for this very purpose, he scorned the oratorical theories and methods. Chance led him to hear first Syrianus, son of Philoxenus, at whose lecture was present Lachares, who was profoundly versed in the doctrines of the philosophers, and at that time was an assiduous auditor of the philosopher, although his art in sophistry excited as much admiration as Homer's in poetry. It happened to be late dusk, and the sun was setting during their conversation, and the moon, quitting her conjunction with the sun, began to appear. So as to be able to adore the Goddess alone and leisurely, they tried to dismiss the youth who to them was a stranger. But, after having taken but a few steps from the house Proclus,----he also seeing the moon leaving her celestial house----stopped in his tracks, undid his shoes, and in plain sight of them adored the Goddess. Struck by the free and bold action of the youth, Lachares then said to Syrianus this admirable expression of Plato's about geniuses: "Here is a man who will be a great good, or its contrary!" Such are the presages,----to mention only a few of them----that the Gods sent to our philosopher just as he arrived in Athens

Excerpt II (sections 27 through 33):

27. One day while reading with him the Orphic writings, and hearing him, in his commentaries, quoting the interpretations not only of Iamblichus and Syrianus, but also of many more authorities who had explored the depths of theology, I begged the philosopher not to leave this divine Orphic poetry without complete commentaries. He answered me that he had often planned to undertake this, but that he had been hindered by certain dreams of Syrianus who discouraged him therefrom with threats. Thinking of no other expedient, I suggested that he at least paraphrase what he approved of in his master's books. He was kind enough to yield, and wrote certain notes at the beginning of these commentaries. That is how we possess a compendium of all the writings relating to this same author and very extensive notes and commentaries on the Orphics, although he did not consent to do this work on all the Orphic Myths and Rhapsodies.

28. But since, as I said before, by his studies on this subject, he had acquired a still greater and more perfect virtue, namely the theurgic, passing beyond the theoretic step, he did not conform his life exclusively to one of the two characteristics suitable to divine beings, but to both: not only did he direct his thoughts upward to the divine, but by a providential faculty which was not merely social, he cared for those things which were lower.

He practiced the Chaldean prayer-meetings and conferences, and even employed the art of moving the divine tops. [iynx wheels] He was a believer in these practices, in unpremeditated responses, and other such divinations, which he had learned from Asklepigenia, daughter of Plutarch, to whom exclusively her father had confided and taught the mystic rites preserved by Nestorius, and the whole theurgic science.

Even before that, according to the prescribed order, and purified by the Chaldean lustrations, the philosopher had, as epoptic initiate, witnessed the apparitions of Hecate under a luminous form, as he himself has mentioned in a special booklet.

He had the power of producing rains by activating, at the right time, a particular rite, and was able to deliver Attica from a terrible drought. He knew how to foresee earthquakes, he had experimented with the divinatory power of the tripod, and had himself uttered verses prophetic about his own destiny.

When 40 years old, he felt that in a dream he had uttered the following verses: "Here broods an immortal splendor, that is supercelestial, which has sprung from the consecrated spring, and whence streams a fiery light!"

At the beginning of his 42nd year, he so seemed to be shouting the following verses: "I am possessed by a spirit which breathes into me the force of fire, which, enfolding and entrancing my reason in a whirl of flame, flies toward the aether, and with its immortal vibrations reechoes in the starry vaults!"

Besides, in a dream he had clearly seen that he belonged to the Hermetic Chain; and, on the authority of a dream, he was convinced that his was the reincarnated soul of the Pythagorean Nicomachus.

29. If we wished to do so, we might easily extend our observations on the theurgic labors of this blessed man. From among thousands, I will mention but one, which is really miraculous. One day Asklepigenia, daughter of Archiadas and Plutarche, and [now] wife of our benefactor Theagenes, being still small, and being raised at her parents', became ill with a sickness pronounced incurable by the physicians. Archiadas was in despair, as the child was the family's only hope, and naturally uttered distressful lamentations. Seeing her abandoned by the physicians, the father, as in the gravest circumstances of life, turned to his last resort, and ran to the philosopher's, as to the only person who could save her, and urgently besought him to come and pray for his daughter. The latter, taking with him the great Lydian Pericles, who also was a genuine philosopher, ran to the temple of Asklepius to pray to God in favor of the patient, for Athens was still fortunate enough to possess it, and it had not yet been sacked [by the Christians].

While he was praying according to the ancient rite, suddenly a change manifested in the little girl's condition, and there occurred a sudden improvement,----for the Savior, being a divinity, swiftly gave her back her health. On completing the religious ceremonies, Proclus visited Asklepigenia, who had just been delivered from the sufferings that had assailed her, and who now was in perfect health. He had indeed performed his vows and offered his prayers in spite of everybody, so as to preclude any possibility of malicious slander, and the whole household had taken part in this act.

This indeed was one of Proclus's good fortunes, that he lived in the house that suited him best, where had dwelt both Syrianus, whom he called his father, and Plutarch, whom he called his grandfather. It was in the vicinity of the Asklepius temple which Sophocles had immortalized, and of the Dionysus temple near the theater, and was in sight of the Acropolis.

30. His choice of the philosophic life amply proves how dear he was to the Goddess friendly to wisdom [Athena], But the goddess testified to that herself when the statue of the goddess which had been erected in the Parthenon had been removed by the [Christian] people who move that which should not be moved. In a dream the philosopher thought he saw coming to him a woman of great beauty, who announced to him that he must as quickly prepare his house "because the Athenian Lady wishes to dwell with you."

How high he stood in the esteem of Asklepius has already been shown in the story I have related above, and we were, in his last malady, thereof convinced by the god's appearance. For being in a semi-waking condition, he saw a serpent9 creeping around his head, and from this moment on he felt relieved from his suffering; and he had the feeling that this apparition would cure him from his disease. But he seemed to have been restrained by an ardent and even violent desire for death, and I am indeed certain that he would have completely recovered his health if he had been willing to receive the cares demanded by his condition.

31. Here is one more fact worthy of being remembered, and that I cannot recall without tears. Now arthritis is a disease which is frequently, and even habitually transmitted from parents to children; and as his father had suffered therefrom, Proclus had always feared that it would afflict him also; and in my opinion, his fears were not entirely groundless, for, before the incident I am about to relate, he had felt pains of this nature, when took place another and very surprising incident.

On the advice of certain persons he put on the afflicted foot a bandage. While he was stretched out on his bed, suddenly a sparrow halted in his flight and carried it away. This was a divine sign that was really paeonic, and of a nature that should have inspired him with confidence for the future; but even in spite of this he did not any the less experience fears of being later on visited by this malady.

Having therefore implored the divinity on this subject, and having besought a clear guidance on this subject, while sleeping he saw something that is so bold, apparently, that I have to appeal to my courage to openly proclaim the truth of the matter. So he seemed to see somebody who was returning from Epidaurus, who bent over his legs, and without hesitation, showing a gesture of tender affection, kissed his knees. From this day on, he lived his whole life long without any anxiety about this subject, and he reached an extreme old age without feeling even a twinge of this disorder.

32. The god of Adrotta [in Lydia] most openly showed this holy man's affinities with him. For when Proclus visited him, the god showed Proclus his favor by appearing to him. Because the natives were not in agreement as to which god or gods resided in this place, and were worshipped, Proclus was in doubt about it and desired enlightenment. Resting on numerous testimonies, some supposed that it was a temple of Asklepius; they said that voices really resounded there, that a table was consecrated to that god, and that there had been received there oracular responses relative to health; and that those who came for consultation were cured of the most dangerous maladies, against all hope. Others, on the contrary, thought it was the Dioscuri who haunted that temple, for some persons thought that they had seen on the highway leading to Adrotta two young men, of an extreme beauty, riding horses of great speed, who said that they were going in all haste to the temple, so that, at first glance it had been believed they were human beings; but soon after the onlookers were convinced that it was a really divine manifestation, because when they themselves arrived at the temple and asked questions, they were told by the local officiating attendants that nothing had been seen there, the horsemen having vanished into thin air.

Proclus was therefore uncertain, and hardly knew what credit to give to the facts related. So he begged the local divinities to reveal their true and proper character by some indubitable testimony. In a dream then he saw a god coming to him and speaking clearly to him, thus:
"What, did you not hear Iamblichus say who those two persons were when he praised the names of Machaon and Podilarius [sons of Asklepius]?"
Thereupon the divinity gave this holy man a testimony of his good will. Just as in the theater orators pronounce panegyrics of great men, the god stood up, and with a gesture of his hand, and in a dramatic tone, with great force uttered these words (for I will repeat the exact words uttered by the divinity): "Proclus is the glory of the fatherland!" What greater proof of the gods' affection for this really blessed man could be adduced? After having received such sympathetic testimonies from the divinities, Proclus would burst into tears, every time he would recall to us what he had seen, and the divine praise uttered about him.

33. But if I was to enumerate all the facts of this kind, and to report the particular devotion which he held for Pan, son of Hermes, the great favors he received, and the numerous times he was, in Athens, saved by intervention of the divinity, and to relate in detail the protections and the advantages he received from the Mother of the Gods, of which he was particularly proud and happy, I would no doubt seem chattering vainly, to those who may light on this book by chance, and some may even think I am saying things little worthy of belief. For there were a considerable number of episodes, that were of almost daily occurrence, when this goddess [Cybele] spoke or acted in his favor; and their number and character are so unusual that I myself do not have their exact and precise memory.

If anyone desires to know with what favor he was attached to this Goddess, let him read Proclus's book on the Mother of the Gods, and it will be seen that with inspiration from on high he has been able to expound the whole theology relative to the Goddess, and to explain philosophically all that the liturgical actions and the oral instructions mythically teach us about the goddess, and Attis, so that they will no longer be troubled by those seemingly absurd lamentations [for Attis] and all the secret traditions related in her ceremonies.