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Proclus's Life and Teachings

Proclus' life

Proclus Diadochus (410/412 - 485 c.e.) was the last of the great Platonic teachers.  Born in Constantinople into a well-off family, he was sent to Alexandria for schooling and was taught philosophy by the Aristotlean philosopher Olympiodorus the Elder, and mathematics by Heron (not to be confused with a more famous mathematician of the same name).  It seemed he was not satisfied there, for while still a teenager he moved to Athens where he studied at Plato's Academy under the philosophers Plutarch and Syrianus.  He was soon teaching at the Academy, and succeeded Syrianus as administrator of the Athenian School, eventually becoming director, a position he held for the rest of his life.  The title Diadochus was given to him at this time, the meaning of the word being successor. He refined and systematize the teachings of Iamblichus, whose school stressed elaborate metaphysical speculation.

As well as being a poet, philosopher, and scientist, Proclus was also an exponent of religious universalism.  He believed the true philosopher should pay homage to the gods of all nations, becoming "a priest of the entire universe."  He was initiated into a number of mystery schools, composed hymns to the gods, fasted in honor of the Egyptian divinities, and practiced theurgy. Like Prophyry and Iamblichus, Proclus opposed Christianity, with it's expectation of the end of the world [see On the Eternity of the World], and passionately defended paganism.  He was a vegetarian, never married, and was very highly regarded by his contemporaries.  His student and biographer Marinus of Samaria stated that he was inspired, and that when philosophizing his countenance shone with preternatural light.

Proclus was author not only of many Platonic commentaries but also numerous astronomical, mathematical, and grammatical works. Aside from his commentaries on the works of Plato, the most important of Proclus's surviving works are Elements of Theology, a systematic evaluation of Neoplatonic metaphysics, and the Platonic Theology.

Proclus' Metaphysics

As with his predecessors, Proclus taught the existence of an ultimate, indescribable reality, the One.  The One is the originator of all things and is equivalent to the Good.  The highest level of reality subsists in an objective mind of the One (compare this with Indian Vedanta).   From the One all other realities, including gods, daimons, humanity and the material universe, are produced by a process of emanation.   The further removed from the One something is, the less real it is.

Proclus took the complex metaphysics of Iamblichus to even greater lengths.  He replaced Iamblichus' distinction of Noetic and Psychic worlds with a complex six-fold classification of One-Being-Life-Nous-Soul-Body.  These various principles are described as the higher causes of the lower creation.  According to Proclus, the higher in the scale of being a principle is, the further downwards its influence extends [Dodds, Iamblichus, p.236].  This can be represented diagrammatically as follows:

The One (Unity)   ------------------------- 
Being    -----------------------------     |
                                      |    |
Life     ------------------------     |    |
                                 |    |    |
Nous     ------------------      |    |    |
                           |     |    |    |
Soul (Reason)  ---------   |     |    |    |
                           |     |    |    |
Animals   <----------------      |    |    |
                                 |    |    |
Plants    <----------------------     |    |
                                      |    |
Inanimate bodies   <------------------     |
Hyle (Formless Matter)  <------------------ 

This idea of the lower principles as inverted reflection of the higher appears elsewhere; for example in the cosmology of Sri Aurobindo and (in non-inverted order) the sequence of planes and principles in Theosophy.

Proclus' Theurgy

Proclus, like his teacher Syrianus, identifies the Demiurge (the Creator God, the father and maker of the universe) with the divine Nous.  He used theurgical ritual, based on this sympatheia, to attract intermediate beings known as leader-gods (hoi hègemonikoi theoi).  Whereas the Demiurge who contains the causes in an unified manner, is characterized by sameness (tauton), the leader-gods are characterized by likeness (homoiotès) which is a lesser degree of unity (i.e. similarity rather than identity).  These beings, as Proclus explains "fasten themselves through likeness to their causes, which are contained in the Demiurge, and lift up and unfold all things it in this demiurgical unity," including "the blessed souls among us, who are lifted up away from the wanderings in the world of becoming towards their own source."   Proclus used theurgical hymns and ritual, based on sympatheia, (equivalent to what in modern hermeticism is called the law of correspondence), to attract the leader-gods in order to be elevated towards the Nous.  It is fascinating to note the similarities with the late 19th century Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn occult-magickal system, and in all subsequent Western hermetic occultism.

More on Poclus' Theurgy

Later Influence

Proclus was the last major Greek philosopher. More than anyone else, he was influential in spreading Neoplatonic ideas throughout the post-pagan Byzantine, Islamic, and Roman worlds.

In the Christian world his writings were adpted by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, through whom they influenced Christian mysticism and theology. In the Arab world external link Abu Ya'qub al-Sijistani (fl. 971) Liber de Causis ("Book of Causes") was thought to be a work of external link Aristotle, but was actually rearrangement of a number of chapters of Proclus's Elements of Theology

In the 13th century, external link William of Moerbeke's Latin translation of the Elements of Theology (as Institutio Theologica) became the principal sources for medieval knowledge of Platonic philosophy, and helped to lay the foundation for the Renaissance revival of Neoplatonism.

The German-Jewish scholar Leo Baeck (1873-1956) makes the external link controversial propsal that the Gnostic-Proto-Kabbalistic text the Sefer Yetzirah "in its thought as well as in its terminology, is dependent upon the teaching of Proclus, the last great Neoplatonist. Furthermore, the decisive passages of the Sefer Yetzirah are none other than the transference of this Greek scholastic's system into Jewish thought and biblical language." This means that not only Christian Mysticism and Renaissance Platonism, but Kabbalah as well can in part be traced back to Proclus. Both of these latter streams of thought in fact merge in the synthesis that is Western Hermeticism.

Today and for the last several centuries Proclus has been relegated to the status of mere systematizer rather than original thinker. Slowly modern scholarship is coming around to a full recognition of Proclus' genius. Along with Plotinus and Iamblichus, he surely stands as one of the great figures of the late classical wisdom tradition.

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page uploaded 28 May 1998, last modified, renamed 14 July 2004