A Miscellany of Quotations — Damascius and Kongtrul

From Damascius’ Lectures on the Philebus

First, the translator, L.G. Westerink — or the Prometheus Trust when they did their monograph — capitalizes Gods. I only just admitted that was a good decision after waffling for more than a decade, but this is a happy thing to see in a book. The Philebus is the Platonic dialogue in which Socrates is arguing with someone about whether knowledge or pleasure is the truly good thing.

How many possible reasons are there for naming deities after human affects or conditions, and what are they? This may concern good or bad or morally indifferent conditions of the soul, and the reason can accordingly be to improve those that are indifferent, to curb them when they are evil, and to strengthen them when they are good.

None of the ancients identifies Aphrodite with Pleasure: how do we account for this? Because Aphrodite is the cause of union, of which pleasure is only an accompaniment; and because there is much ugliness in bodily pleasure at least, whereas Aphrodite is beauty, not only the beauty that comes from divine inspiration, but also that of nature.

20-21. I perked up when I saw this because it reminds me of the reduction of Gods to concepts (Aphroditê=Love/Pleasure, Poseidôn=Oceans, Athênê=Wisdom) so prevalent in the media. Beyond the polytheist community, this happens so often to the Gods in pop culture, and it bleeds into us at the edges. (It also breaks my heart frequently when I read science fiction/fantasy written by an author who doesn’t understand how to do polytheism in worldbuilding.)

Note: While writing this, I really wanted to give Apollôn as an example above, but doing that gave me decision paralysis because I cannot for the life of me remember what people are currently reducing him to. Like, is he a poet? A chorus-master? A solar God? Music? Healing? My inability to pick one is sad, relieving, and hilarious.

At 22, then:

[Aphrodite] is a proper name, the former a generic name, and the individual is more efficacious; possibly, because it is better adapted to our own divided nature.

Names matter.

[T]here are many aspects of Prometheus: on the intellective, the supra-mundane and the intra-mundane level, each transmitting the divine gifts to the world accordingly. We must also add, he says, that the distinctive character of this deity is to reveal the good that is hidden with the Gods; therefore he is said to have stolen the fire, that is to say, to have disclosed the mystic treasure.

58 above got me thinking about Percy Shelley and Prometheus Unbound, but also about the Gods & Heroes of the Ancient World monograph by Carol Dougherty about Prometheus. She never mentions the Late Platonists and primarily skips over to more contemporary interpretations, if my recollection and brief skimming are correct. Prometheus comes up in the Philebus, but also the Protagoras. In Damascius, shortly after the above,

The fire that Prometheus stole and gave to man is all elevatory existence and elevatory perfection, not viewed in its upward motion, but in the process of being distributed through him to the lowest stratum of the universe. This is why it is said to be stolen, because, though elevatory, it is brought down; and through him, because only its descent is effected by Titanic powers, while its existence as form is due to other Gods.

That is at 61. A footnote clarifies that because the Titans tore apart Dionysos, they are often seen as hyper-individualization, an extremity.

What this actually got me thinking about was physical cosmology — specifically, the fireball ~370,000 years after the Big Bang that was in all places that are where we and everything we can see is. The cosmic microwave background is hidden, permeating everything, until we peel back the curtain and look. The difficulty of seeing it reminds me of the fennel stalk. There’s a poem there, I think, burning at the tip of my lips.

this limitless horizon
descending far down
shapeless and spaceless
a concavity, yearning
breath fire-bellowing
until the oscillations
swell into themselves
burning radial
inferno descends, reverts
hollow at its core

evidence of embers cast

Something like that, perhaps? Maybe, maybe not. It doesn’t really have the sense of pulling open. Moving on!

The analytical method is inferior to that of division, for the latter rests on causal relationship, the former on indirect evidence; the  latter watches from on high the lower ranges of the universe, the former looks up at the higher world from below: the latter does not rely on any datum of sense, the former is primarily dependent on sense-perception.

While reading 68, I suddenly thought, “This is the story of the natural sciences-philosophy rift.” Contextually, the passage is not about that at all. But I do think that the de-prioritization of sense-perception in this argument is very interesting.

In the science vein, the discussion of heat and coldness at 32 or thereabouts was difficult for me to read because coldness and heat are actually just different intensities of heat; heat has more motion, and coldness has less motion. I still sort of got what was being said, but my head went off in a different direction of trying to think of two examples that are not concepts like justice, love, beauty (meaning, at the same level that heat and cold might be meant) that are not actually just the same thing deep down. So distracting.

From The Great Path of Awakening

As before, translated by Ken McLeod.

I’m reading the notes right now. First, there are Gods present in them, so. See 56-57 of the ebook:

From the time Atisha was eight years old, he enjoyed a close relationship with the deity Green Tara, the embodiment of the activity of awakened compassion. […] Atisha’s spiritual development is closely linked with the numerous visions he had of Green Tara. It was she who urged him to seek the teachings on bodhicitta.

Another thing is linguistically interesting, the term going for refuge discussed on p. 59-60:

“Going for refuge” means orienting oneself towards the attainment of enlightenment — taking refuge in Buddha. In addition, one takes refuge in the dharma, the teachings and experience of awakening, and in the sangha, the teachers and other practitioners, who provide guidance and support on this path. [… A]n end to suffering and frustration can be found only through awakening to a true understanding of oneself and the world, but the path to that internal understanding requires expert guidance by someone who knows the way.

Since it’s nearly Thanksgiving — and since we have the holidays upon us — it’s heartwarming to see the sense of community here. There’s often the sense that enlightenment or “going for the One,” to borrow a title of a Yes song, is a solitary endeavor. The truth is, when reading about Platonism, Stoicism, Buddhism, or any tradition, you never see teachers without their students, and there is always a sense of people coming together for one another. It’s hard to remember this in a digital age when we’re segmented apart into micro-clusters and when we build walls to keep one another out. That’s not socially healthy at all.

There’s a term in the notes on p. 65, poet-contemplative, that I think is really awesome. It’s an adjective applied to someone whom one of the people mentioned studied with. If I were the kind of person who did vision boards, this would be on mine. 😅


4 thoughts on “A Miscellany of Quotations — Damascius and Kongtrul

  1. Socrates’ remarks about Aphrodite, and about his general “awe” regarding the names of the Gods at Philebus 12b-c are incredibly rarely remarked upon by modern commentators, despite the fact that Plato echoes them closely at Cratylus 400d-401a. Westerink’s note on p. 14 is sadly ignorant, failing to grasp that the individuality (idiotês) of a God is prior, in the system shared by Proclus and Damascius, to “universality” (holotês, koinônia), and hence there is no “contradiction” or “inconsistency”.

    Similarly, his remarks on §60, where he refers to “extreme individualization”, are misleading, inasmuch as the passage to which he refers (I 86 of Damascius’ commentary on the Phaedo) speaks not of “individuality”, but of “division” (merismos), which refers, not to individuality, but to the fragmentation within an individual. This is what the Platonists speak of as “Titanic”, not the existence of individuals. In the Platonic system, we have in effect three stages of procession, in descending order: individuality, universality, and particularity. The particular is a “division” of the universal; the individual, to the extent that it is a genuine individual, is not a “division” but a “one”.

    Your remarks about §68 concerning the rift between the natural sciences and philosophy is very perceptive. Damascius does indeed have something like that in mind. Note that “division” here is diairesis, which is similar in sense to merismos, but slightly distinct. Diairesis has the technical sense for Platonists of the kind of dialectical “division” exemplified in Plato’s Sophist. Hence Damascius distinguishes it from “analysis”, which would be closer to merismos. From diairesis we get “divisions” of reality possessing a higher ontological value than those arising from “analysis” of given data, which Damascius characterizes here as tekmêriôdês, literally, depending on testimony, or what we term “empirical” or a posteriori.

    Also, the passage you quote about Prometheus is §61, not §65. It’s a clever interpretation of the mythic “theft”, similar to the one given at greater length by Olympiodorus in his own commentary on Plato’s Gorgias.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Cool, thanks, fixed the §65 → §61. Tangentially, the ways the Platonists interpret myth is one of the reasons why it would be fun to see a mythology class that engaged with ancient commentators on myths and not just on the “Original Canonical Myth™️” and modern critique.

      Your clarifications about the “extreme individualization” note at §60 make sense — thank you for them.

      Data can only ever offer something that is an approximation of reality, to be honest, because nothing is ever as pristine as theory. That’s why the media is so overselling that star that “could be older than the universe” (but really isn’t; the error in the measurement is just very high) and many other things that happen in science. It’s my understanding that diairesis was abandoned because it wasn’t as useful for natural science when, say, trying to figure out where to place species in the web of life according to a forensic analysis of how they evolved to be what they are. I wonder if the closer something is to matter, the less useful diairesis is, but that’s just me thinking aloud without really having a solid foundation in what I’m talking about. 😅

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree that diairesis is better for “divisions” that are theory-intensive, like divisions of disciplines.

        A mythology class of the kind you describe is definitely something I’d like to take a crack at sometime.

        Liked by 1 person

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