Proclus, the famous philosopher, mathematician, and poet, came into the world of time and sense on the 8th day of February, A. D. 410, at Byzantium, and migrated from this physical life on April the 17th. 485 A.D.
His parents, Patricius and Marcella, were Lycians and of an illustrious family. He was taken immediately after his birth to their native country, to the city of Xanthus, which was consecrated to Apollo. And this happened to him by a certain divine providence: for it was necessary that he who was to be the leader of all sciences should be educated under the presiding Deity of the Muses.
He received his elementary education in Lycia, and then went to Alexandria, in Egypt, and became a pupil of Leonas the rhetorician, and Orion the grammarian. He likewise attended the schools of the Roman teachers and acquired an accurate knowledge of the Latin language.
But his tutelar Goddess exhorted him to study philosophy and to go to the Athenian schools. In obedience to this exhortation, he attended the lectures of Olympiodorus, an eminent Peripatetic, in order to learn the doctrine of Aristotle; and he was instructed in mathematical disciplines by Hero. On one occasion, after hearing a lecture by Olympiodorus, a man who was gifted with much eloquence, and who, by the rapidity of his speech and the depth of his subject was understood by but very few of his auditors, Proclus repeated to his companions the lecture nearly word for word, though the discourse was copious. He comprehended with great facility the writings of Aristotle pertaining to rational philosophy, though the bare reading of them is difficult to those who attempt the task.
After learning all that his Alexandrian masters could teach him, he went to Athens accompanied by the Gods who preside over eloquence and philosophy, and by beneficent daemons. For that he might preserve the genuine and entire succession of Plato, he was brought by the Gods to the city of the guardian (Athene) of Philosophy. Hence Proclus was called by way of preeminence the Platonic Successor.
At Athens he became the pupil of the first of philosophers, Syrianus,2 the son of Philoxenus, who not only taught him but made him the companion of his philosophic life, having found him such an auditor and successor as he had a long time sought for, and one who was capable of apprehending a multitude of disciplines and divine dogmas. In less than two years, therefore, Proclus read with Syrianus all the works of Aristotle, viz. his Logic, Ethics, Politics, Physics, and Theological Science. And being sufficiently instructed in these as in certain proteleia,3 i. e., things [iii] preparatory to initiation, and lesser mysteries Syrianus led him to the sacred discipline of Plato, in an orderly progression, and not, according to the Chaldaean Oracle, with a transcendent foot. And he likewise enabled Proclus to survey with him truly divine mysteries, with [iv] the eyes of his soul free from material darkness, and with an undefiled intellectual vision. But Proclus, employing sleepless exercise and attention, both by night and by day, and synoptically and judiciously recording the discourses of Syrianus, made so great a progress in his studies that by the time he was twenty-eight years of age he had composed a multitude of works, among them his Commentary on the Timæus, which is truly subtle and full of erudition. But from this course of training his manners became more adorned; and as he advanced in science he increased in virtue. The soul of Proclus, concentrating itself, and retiring into the depth of its essence, departed in a certain respect from body, while it yet appeared to be contained in its dark receptacle. For he possessed a Prudence, not like that of a civil character, which is conversant with the administration of fluctuating particulars, but Prudence itself, by itself pure, which is engaged in contemplating, and converting itself to itself, in nowise agreeing with a corporeal nature. He likewise possessed a Temperance free from the inferior part or body, which is not even moderately influenced by perturbations but is abstracted from all affections. And, lastly, he acquired a Fortitude, which does not fear a departure from the body. But reason and intellect dominating in him, and the inferior powers of his soul no longer opposing themselves to purifying Justice, his whole life was adorned with the divine irradiations of genuine Virtue. Proclus, having perfected himself in this form of the virtues, advancing as it were by the highest and most mystical step ascended to the greatest and most consummate virtues, being conducted by a prosperous nature and scientific discipline. For being now purified, rising above generation, and despising the wand or thyrsus-bearers in it,5 he was divinely inspired about the [v] Primal Essences and became an inspector of the truly blessed spectacles which are in the Intelligible Sphere. It was no longer necessary for him to acquire a knowledge of them by processes of reasoning and demonstrations, but surveying them as it were by direct vision, and beholding by simple intuitions of the thinking power the paradigms in the Divine Intellect, he obtained a virtue which no one would rightly call Prudence, but rather Wisdom, or something even more venerable than this.6 Proclus, therefore, energizing according to this virtue easily comprehended all the theology of the Greeks and Barbarians, and that which is adumbrated in mythological fictions, and revealed it to those who are willing and able to understand it. He explained likewise everything more enthusiastically than others and brought the different theologies into harmony with each other. At the same time, investigating the writings of the Ancients, whatever he found in them genuine he judiciously adopted, but everything [vi] of a vain and fruitless character he entirely rejected as erroneous. He likewise strenuously refuted by a diligent examination those doctrines which were contrary to truth. In his associations, too, with others, he powerfully and clearly discussed the subjects presented for consideration and delineated them in his writings. For he was laborious beyond measure: in one day he delivered five and sometimes more lectures, and wrote as many as seven hundred verses…. In the beginning of his forty-second year he appeared to himself to pronounce with a loud voice these verses:
Lo! on my soul a sacred fire descends,
Whose vivid power the intellect extends;
From whence far beaming thro’ dull body’s night.
It soars to aether deck’d with starry light;
And with soft murmurs thro the azure round,
The lucid regions of the Gods resound.
Moreover, he clearly perceived that he belonged to the Hermetic chain; and was persuaded by a dream that he possessed the soul of Nicomachus the Pythagorean.7
Ammonius Hermeias, a genuine Platonist and likewise [vii] one of the best of the Aristotelian commentators, says (Com. De Interpret. Aristot.): “If we are able to add anything to the elucidation of this book from recollecting the interpretations of our divine teacher, Proclus the Platonic Successor, who possessed the power of unfolding the opinions of the Ancients, and a scientific judgment of the nature of things, in the highest perfection possible to humanity, we shall be very grateful to the God of discourse (Hermes).” Cousin declares (Procli Opera, Præfatio Generalis): “Proclus was illustrious as an astronomer; he was the first among the philologists of his age; he had so comprehended all religions in his mind, and regarded them with such equal reverence, [viii] that he was as it were the hierophant of the whole universe: nor was it wonderful that a man possessing such a profound knowledge of nature and science should have this initiation into all sacred mysteries…. As he was the head of the Athenian School and of all later philosophy, so I may affirm that all the earlier is found gathered up in him and that he may be taken as the one interpreter of the whole philosophy of the Greeks… I shall set it down as an established fact that nothing great was thought out by Iamblichus, Porphyry, and Plotinus, either in Ethics, Metaphysics, or Physics, which is not found expressed more clearly and methodically in Proclus… The threefold division of Greek Philosophy may be reduced ultimately to one, which being the same always, by a natural and certain progress enlarges and unfolds itself, and moves on through three stages intimately connected, the first being contained in the second, the second in the third, so that the man who after the lapse of ages finds himself at the end of this gradually evolving series, on the highest apex of that third age, as he embraces all the accumulations of former times in himself, stands as the representative of each sect of Greece, emphatically the Greek philosopher — such a man I say was Proclus, in whom it seems to me are combined and from whom shine forth in no irregular or uncertain rays all the philosophical lights which have illuminated Greece in various times, to wit Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus.”
These eulogies, which may seem extravagant to those who know Proclus, if at all, only through the average historian of Philosophy, are in my deliberate judgment, a judgment formed after a study of many years of the writings of Proclus, based on the truth.
Proclus was unquestionably one of the greatest philosophers of any age or country. His authority was [ix] dominant during his own time: in all subsequent ages, directly and indirectly, he exerted an enormous and far-reaching influence through his writings, especially the Metaphysical Elements, which were generally read, either in the original or in translation. The noted Liber de Causis, which was compiled almost textually from the Metaphysical Elements, was one of the most famous and widely-circulated books of the medieval ages, and the source of many of the conceptions of the medieval thinkers, Christian and Arabian. It was attributed to Aristotle and was variously known as Liber de essentia purae bonitatis, De causis causarum, De Intelligentiis, De Esse, etc. Jourdain says that the philosophy of the 10th Century cannot be known well, unless the Liber de Causis and Fons Vitae are analyzed. Renan thought that the Liber de Causis holds in germ all the scholastic philosophy. Haureau9 observes: “Such is the ‘Book concerning Causes,’ which has made so great an uproar; which, according to the Church, has ruined so many consciences; which has produced at least so many scandals.”
It would be superfluous to enumerate the names of all the thinkers who were nurtured by his philosophic conceptions, but a few may be mentioned. The writings of Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite, which profoundly inspired and influenced Christian thought for many centuries, owe much to Proclus. Generally, and particularly in his treatise On the Divine Names, Dionysius borrowed extensively from him. The hierarchies of Dionysius are modeled on the different orders of the “gods” (qeoi) which are divine natures, essences or forces, of varying power and rank.
During the Renaissance Proclus, made known to the Latin world by the translations of divers of his [x] works by William of Moerbeke10 and Marsilius Ficinus [Ficino], was one of the mighty intellectual forces which emancipated mankind from the shackles of prejudice, bigotry, and ignorance. Later, the writings of Giordano Bruno and Benedict Spinoza show that they drew from Proclus some of their cardinal doctrines.
In Modern times the influence of Proclus has not diminished. Many distinguished scholars and thinkers, though in all cases not directly, have been stimulated or inspired by his thought. Hegel, for instance, studied Proclus deeply and was largely indebted to him. He gave special attention to the Elements, as is evidenced by his correspondence with Creuzer on the text.11
If the reader wishes to ascertain what the character of Proclus was not, and to get a travesty of his philosophy, he may peruse “Alexandria and Her Schools” by Charles Kingsley, one of the blind leaders of the blind in philosophical science, a gentleman who was in the habit of vilifying whatever he did not understand, and who was no more qualified to explain or criticize what he termed “Neo-Platonism” than an Esquimo [Eskimo].
I first read the Greek text of the Metaphysical Elements, (StoiceiwsiV qeologikh), in Creuzer’s edition, [xi] in the Winter of 1872—73. At that time many of the Propositions were beyond my full comprehension, but the study of the whole book was to me, an intellectual discipline of inestimable value, and the Propositions which I mastered amply repaid all the time and thought expended upon them. In the Spring of 1873, I read Taylor’s translation, published in 1792,12 in connection with the original. His notes illuminated many of the dark places.
In translating the Metaphysical Elements I have spent many intensely laborious but very pleasant and extremely profitable hours. The translation is based on Taylor’s, but it would be an act of injustice to him to call my version a revision of his, though my indebtedness to him is large, and is cheerfully acknowledged. Many of the Propositions I retranslated entirely, and in the others more or less changes were made, for the sake of perspicuity or by way of correction. Taylor’s notes are generally truly illuminative of the subject, and I have reprinted nearly all of them. I am also much indebted to Mr. Thomas Whittaker, whose book, “The Neo-Platonists”, may be strongly commended to all students. His abstract of the Elements is excellent.
Purely philological notes have been omitted. These rightly belong to an edition of the original text, which someday I may publish. As a rule, the text as edited by Creuzer, (Francof. 1822), has been followed, but I have adopted most of the emendations of Taylor and made a few of my own. The Latin version of Franciscus Patricius, (Ferrar. 1583),13 is a valuable aid to the interpretation of the original. He undoubtedly used a [xii] much more perfect manuscript than any which is now known,
Greek words and quotations are printed without the accents. It is difficult to get them printed correctly, but there is a better reason for dispensing with them: they are practically useless. They “seldom occur in Greek manuscripts before the seventh century” of the Christian era. Accents were invented by Aristophanes of Byzantium about 200 B. C, for the purpose of preserving the true pronunciation of the Hellenic language. This they failed to do: the true pronunciation is lost, beyond recovery. We should remember that accents were not devised for scholars.
Probably the best preparation for the apprehension of the Elements is a mastery of Plotinus’ treatise On the Three Archical Hypostases of Things, viz. The Good, Intellect, and Soul. He demonstrates that the Primary Causes can be neither more nor less than these. “But these three are thus denominated because they are not consubsistent; and they are not consubsistent, because they are essentially different from each other. For, according to Plato, The Good is superes-sential; Intellect is an impartible, immovable essence; and Soul is a self-motive essence, and subsists as a medium between Intellect and the nature which is distributed about bodies.” The chief aim of Proclus in the Elements is to demonstrate and develop this Platonic insight. The work “contains two hundred and eleven propositions, disposed in a scientific order, and supported by the firmest demonstrations. They begin from super-essential unity, and proceed gradually through all the beautiful and wonderful progressions of divine causes, ending in the self-moving energies of soul. They possess all the accuracy of Euclid, and all the subtility and sublimity necessary to a knowledge of the most profound theology, and may be considered as bearing [xiii] the same relation to the Pythagoric and Platonic wisdom as Euclid’s Elements to the most abstruse geometry.”
Mr. D. E. Wagenhals, of Nashville, Ills., has ingeniously and admirably illustrated the Propositions of the Metaphysical Elements by geometrical diagrams — a work which I heartily hope will soon be given to the public. These diagrams will much facilitate the student’s apprehension of the Elements. In an Appendix, two specimens of these diagrams are presented, by the kindness of Mr. Wagenhals.
At the request of friends, a few notes of personal intellectual history are here given. My introduction to the so-called Neo-Platonic philosophy was on a day in the Spring of 1870 when, roaming around the Library of the University of Notre Dame,14 Indiana, seeking any book of interest, especially of a classical nature, I found half a dozen dust-covered volumes of the old Classical Journal, (published in London, 1810—1829). How these volumes ever gained entrance into the Library, I have often wondered. Be that as it may, there they were, and the first article I saw when I opened one of them was the Chaldaean Oracles,15 edited, translated and annotated by the famous Thomas Taylor the Platonist. (Taylor shows that the Chaldaean and Platonic teachings on important points were identical). There were other translations and papers by Taylor, and through them, I discovered the existence of the mighty thinkers, the genuine disciples of Plato.
In the latter part of August, 1870,16 on my way to the University, I purchased in St. Louis the April No., 1869, of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, which contains the Sentences of Porphyry, translated by my friend, the late Prof. Thomas Davidson. My attention had been called to it by a press notice giving the contents of this particular number.
In December 1870, I procured the original text of the writings of Plotinus, (2 vols., ed, by Adolph Kirchhoff, Lips., 1856). Later I procured the Paris edition, (1855), which has Prolegomena and the Latin version of Marsilius Ficinus [Ficino].17 In 1871 I picked up Taylor’s version of the Select Works of Plotinus, (London, 1817), which is excellent, though almost as concise as the original, and is enriched with useful notes and an Introduction profoundly interesting and valuable. But I soon found that it was a Herculean task to reach the insights of Plotinus. I had a fair mastery of the language, but to apprehend his Thought was very difficult. But I persevered. The gathering of Platonic knowledge, if a matter of constant toil and activity, was [xv] equally a matter of perpetual delight and profit. My appetite for Wisdom was immeasurably stimulated, and it is still insatiably strong. And thus gradually I was able to recall a knowledge of the wonderful and marvelous Philosophy, of which Plato is the chief exponent — the Philosophy whose principles will never become obsolete, for they are “the same yesterday, and today, and forever”: the Philosophy which, as Proclus truly says, “came to mankind for the benefit of terrestrial souls, in lieu of statues, temples, and the whole of sacred institutions; and which is the leader of intellectual salvation alike to the men that, now are and to those who shall come hereafter.” True, I knew something of Plato, even before this, I had read several of his works in a wretched English version,18 and the Apology and Crito in the Greek, but my “knowledge” was [xvi] merely superficial. I had never until now found the key which would admit me into the penetralia of his Thought. But when I read Taylor and Plotinus, then indeed was the darkness of ignorance dispersed — then I could truly say,
“Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.”
By an indefatigable study of the Platonic text, with these and others of the Golden Chain of the Platonic Succession as guides, I was enabled to find and travel the way to the divine Ideas of Plato. The way was not easy, for “The path by which to deity we climb Is arduous, rough, ineffable, sublime,” but every step taken was an encouragement to proceed, by reason of the gain of new insights and a continuous accession of intellectual power.
The Platonic are the only writings to which I can return, in health or in sickness, without satiety, fatigue, or dissatisfaction. It matters not how often I open these golden books, I find thoughts and ideas which lift me above the sordid and material cares of life, and which are a perennial consolation and a refuge. These ideas are primarily in the noumenal world, and our apprehension and participation of them here, in the region of time and space, is a foretaste of a perfect participation hereafter, if we qualify ourselves for such an exalted intellectual experience.