- Proclus: An Introduction by Radek Chlup
If it had been possible to write on Proclus a volume that was truly “introductory” then perhaps this journal would have been the wrong place to review it. However, Proclus stood at the end of a millennium of Greek philosophy, making the conventional “introduction” impossible to write. The “student” new to Proclus must have some knowledge of the texts that Proclus himself took for granted, including at least fourteen works of Plato, most of the Aristotelian corpus, at least some of Plotinus’s treatises, and many other texts, both religious and philosophical, that are now only fragmentary. The readers of such an “introduction” will come from a variety of backgrounds, and will want to ask a correspondingly wide range of questions about the philosopher they are meeting. They might approach ancient philosophers from the perspective of argument, belief, system, scholarship, or way-of-life.
The opening sentence clarifies the perspective from which the author will introduce Proclus, for we read that “Late Neoplatonism is one of the most complex systems ever produced in the West” (1). Proclus, it seems, is to be introduced as a system, and as part of something called “late Neoplatonism.” Some might join Lloyd Gerson in objecting even to the term ‘Neoplatonism,’ though I am more troubled by the suggestion that Proclus is somehow a typical late Neoplatonist. He is the pinnacle of “systematicity,” rivalled only by his teacher Syrianus with whom he seldom openly disagrees, and perhaps by his second successor Damascius. Only members of the Athenian School exhibit this system, and not all of them. Olympiodorus at Alexandria has no such system, and the complex theology is forgotten. Proclus’s own biographer and successor Marinus abandoned the Parmenides-exegesis at the centre of Proclus’s theology, and Damascius voiced several disagreements. Proclus, in effect, went too far for others to follow, and their admiration for him did not constitute commitment to his system.
I hesitate more over the contrast between “Middle Platonic and Neoplatonic systems” (4), given that no canonical Middle Platonist existed, remains are meager, and the variety of approaches defies any single systematic description. Even Chlup admits that the contrast is sometimes elusive: “In actuality, the break between Middle and Neoplatonism was far from sharp” (11). I also question the occasional reference to “Eastern Neoplatonism.” Such terms reflect Chlup’s desire to contrast systems in the same way that one might contrast Epicureanism with Stoicism, but whereas comparatively few Stoics or Epicureans were notably heterodox, it is orthodoxies that are missing from among the so-called Neoplatonists. This terminology might give the mistaken impression that Proclus’s system was widely adopted by others.
Chlup is chiefly concerned to emphasize the differences between Proclus and Plotinus, who is extensively quoted, unlike Syrianus, Damascius, or Olympiodorus. While Hermias is more often quoted and reflects Syrianus’s views, the quotations are from the same ten pages of text. The tactic of explaining Proclus through regular comparison with Plotinus will work for those readers familiar with the Enneads, and the comparison between Plotinus and the whole tradition from Iamblichus (16–32) is useful. However, such comparisons may be less helpful for those reading Proclus for reasons more connected with Plato, the Pythagoreans, or religious systems.
Given Chlup’s emphasis on the systematic nature of Proclus’s thought, and its metaphysical and religious foundations, it is predictable that the Elements of Theology is easily the work most quoted. This is followed by in Timaeum, where 32 of the 37 quotations come from the second of its five books, then in Rempublicam and the Platonic Theology (excluding books V–VI). One must be selective, but such selections as these reinforce the tendency to look at Proclus principally as a complex theological and metaphysical thinker. The book does not only seek to examine Proclus from this perspective, for there are chapters on epistemology, ethics, hermeneutics, symbolic interpretation, and the problem of evil, and it is not a criticism that these involve much that is dependent on the metaphysics and [End Page...