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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for giving us more about Proclus! You rock!

I just finished "Theology of Arithmetic" (attributed to Iamblichos, translated by Robin Waterfield). Once I finish "Theurgy And The Soul", I'm definitely going to start looking for a [more recent than Taylor] translation of Proclus [that I can afford].

Aetius :)

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hi Aetius. Good luck finding affordable Proclus translations! Let me know if you do.