- Interpreting Proclus: From Antiquity to the Renaissance ed. by Stephen Gersh
Stephen Gersh aims in this fascinating collection to demonstrate “for the first time” that there is a “grand narrative” of Proclus’s influence in European thought (1–2). His introductory essay presents the demonstration in broad outlines, and the seventeen essays that follow flesh out his initial observations. This framing of the work—consisting of a series of essays on Proclus and his reception from Dionysius the Areopagite to Francesco Patrizi—casts it as a capstone of Gersh’s more than forty years of scholarship on Proclus and the Platonic tradition.
In “Proclus as theologian,” Gersh distinguishes within Proclus’s theology between “reason” and “revelation” (80) suggesting that we take the two important texts of Proclus’s theology—Elements of Theology and Platonic Theology—as representative of the “rational” and the “revelatory” streams, respectively, and then consider how the “dialectical conclusions of the former work are used to organize the theological systematization of the latter” (82). At the beginning, however, Gersh notes that the inner meaning of Plato’s Parmenides is, for Proclus, “non-discursive and theurgic,” and this is the heart of [End Page 499] theological discourse (81). Yet Gersh later insists that Proclus pursues “a fundamentally affirmative theology” in the Elements (83) and Platonic Theology (95). One wonders whether the best account of Proclus as theologian can be derived only from these two texts. Although this method does provide “illuminating insights into the fundamental structure of Proclus’s theology” (82), one might object that the axiomatic structures and affirmative discourse have inhibited the non-discursive element of theology that one finds elsewhere in Proclus. Gersh might well have explored other Proclean texts. Lucas Siorvanes contributes a quirky but intriguing account of Proclus’s life, as well as his works and their context in the curriculum of studies at Athens for the education of the soul. Anne Sheppard provides an excellent introduction to Proclus’s hermeneutical principles in various settings (philosophical, mathematical, astronomical, poetic, and theurgical). For Proclus, “exegesis is fundamental to his way of doing philosophy because he saw the whole world as a system of symbols” (75). Various aspects of Proclus’s reception and influence are addressed in later sections. Perhaps most important to the completion of the narrative supporting Gersh’s argument are the chapters on medieval Byzantine philosophy. These are critical because they enlarge the picture of Proclus’s influence that, in the East, took place in a context where most of his texts were continuously available. Dominic O’Meara gives a detailed account of Michael Psellos’s use of various Proclean texts in his usual engaging style, and Michele Trizio attempts to rehabilitate John Italos, sweeping away the view of Italos as “a mediocre scholar whose philosophy was unoriginal and who was unversed in theology” (183). Lastly, Gersh’s excursus on Gemistos Plethon reveals a Platonist rather than a Proclean, that is, one who rejects Proclus’s triadic in favor of a dyadic theological structure.
Of the remaining essays, Christina d’Ancona’s superb chapter on the Liber de causis provides a lucid account of the structure of the text and, most importantly, restores real agency to the author as a rational writer who made informed choices about which Proclean texts to use, and how to modify Proclean doctrines to fit an Islamic theological framework.
Another, on Nicholas of Cusa, written by Gersh himself, fascinates, digging into Nicholas’s own engagement with Proclus, both in his early excerpting of Proclus’s writings and in his later marginalia in his own manuscripts of Proclus’s major works. Excepting Carlos Steel’s earlier work, this is the only attempt thus far to analyze these together with Nicholas’s own citations of Proclus to discover what Nicholas takes from Proclus into his own thinking. Gersh could have been less cautious in making inferences from the marginalia to Nicholas’s own use of Proclean concepts, especially where Nicholas does not mention Proclus by name, but this is a minor quibble. The...