Commonplace Book: Proclus, Hermias

I haven’t done a Commonplace Book post in a while, so here’s another one.

First, I have a book recommendation: If you like my commonplace book posts, which are heavy on Platonism and especially Proclus right now because that’s who I’m reading, you will love Chlup’s Proclus: An Introduction. There is a lower-priced paperback or ebook version, and it breaks down the system in a nice way with diagrams. It’s grounding — plus, if you’ve already been reading the Platonists and you’re not in a structured environment¹, it’s good review of what one has already read. It reminded me how much fun reading Proclus’ Alcibiades commentary was, for example.

As of the end of May, I am still reading Proclus’ commentary on the Myth of Er in the Republic. It has been slow going on account of my reading pace in French, but I am determined to finish reading it soon — after spending some time brainstorming how to use the chunks of time in my evening in a more organized way, I think I have a handle on how to have read it faster so I can move into Proclus’ Timaeus commentary soon.

First, there’s a cultic nugget about the Fates — offering them water because this is an appropriate sacrifice to Goddesses who are pure and who symbolically wear white garments in Plato’s Myth of Er.

Le blanc éclatant convient donc aussi aux Parques, en tant qu’elles présentent aux yeux les vies célestes grâce auxquelles elles meuvent le ciel. Car le non-mêlé et le pur leur est approprié. C’est pourquoi aussi il est permis de faire aux Parques des libations d’eau pure, et tout ce qui est chtonien [passage cuts off for some damage reason].

Proclus, XVIième Dissertation sur La République, ln. 246.27-247.2, trans. Festugière

What had been intended regarding Chthonic sacrifices? Allowed or disallowed? The focus of the passage is on their purity and on the white garments. Since purity protocols would disallow mingling Chthonic with Ouranic sacrifices, yet they are deeply involved in the soul’s choice of a life upon the meadow just before it makes its descent into embodiment, what does this mean for them and Chthonic sacrifices? Questions, questions.

Right now (24 May), I am deep in the section about the choice of lives on the meadow, and I scribbled down a few fragments of passages on a piece of paper while I was reading earlier this weekend.

First, from the tenth item that Proclus presents concerning souls and the choice —

Dixièmement que, même dans la génésis et après le choix, le libre arbitre ne nous est pas enlevé. Car nous pouvons nous tenir en des dispositions bonnes ou mauvaises, agir avec piété quelle que soit la forme de vie, et nous préparer pour nous-même un sort meilleur que le type d’existence actuellement présent.

Proclus, XVIième Dissertation sur La République, ln. 266.23-26, trans. Festugière

This was simultaneously uplifting and puzzling. We can bear things with piety and prepare ourselves for doing better or worse next time; it sounds very hopeful. However, what happens if one makes a choice that involves something awful? How does one approach necessity with dignity and piety in that instance? Is it gritting one’s teeth and accepting that this is a cathartic conditioning that, if done correctly, will lead to the soul doing better? What if one has hastily chosen the worst type of life that, earlier in the myth, is generally never let out of the path from below? The section reminds me of Lattimore’s Story Patterns in Greek Tragedy about the inevitability of the characters’ fates, with choice, inevitability, and key themes as specific touchstone points of his arguments: “Yet all these transpositions into such different plots have this in common, that they do pre-set a pattern in which death, whether or not by divine orders, is seen to be necessary, and in which the hero sees this, consents, and makes the act his own” (p. 49).

And now, 267.13: “les lots sont toujours de mounveaux lots.” This short phrase reminds me of something I’ve been reading in Cosmological Koans, which I have pressed farther into. The same day I read this passage in Proclus, I read Aguirre discuss the idea of a closed system in which a particle cannot ever be wholly retraced or ever find the same location as the original; it can come close, but not overlap. Similarly, if a painting is encased in a closed system for eternity, it will disintegrate and reform itself into nearly the same original painting. There can be many lives like the one I have right now, but (probably?) never one that is absolutely identical. I jotted down another small piece at 267.17, “bien que les vies individuelles varient de toute façon à l’infini, leurs modèles sont nécessairement limités.” A limited number of models, yet boundless possibilities within them.

Now back to virtue.

La vertu en revanche est chose sans maître, non seulement à cause de notre libre arbitre, mais aussi parce qu’elle libère l’âme des maîtres les plus cruels, maîtres par lesquels, si l’âme est l’esclave,  elle est privée de tous les biens. Car elle est l’esclave de mouvements de colère et de désir, d’imaginations, de sensations, de démons liés à la matière, des hommes qui fournissent aux passions. C’est de tout cela que la vertu est naturellement propre à libérer. Dès lors c’est elle, elle seule, qu’il est permis de dire « chose sans maître », et non le vice, qui est servile et qui rend l’âme esclave.

Proclus, XVIième Dissertation sur La République, ln. 276.5-13, trans. Festugière

Earlier in the week, I revisited the chapter in Addey’s Unfolding Wings (only in print, not an ebook, highly recommend reading) on virtue because my thoughts were flying apart like a flock of birds whose pattern had disintegrated. (Several things were bothering me at the same time.) This passage was also grounding; it discusses how virtue is something without a master or a thing driving it to be such-and-such a way; we always have access to it. There are echoes of Iamblichus here in the part of the De Mysteriis where he discusses daimones who are extremely partitive and in matter, daimones that are often seen as harmful because they just do their thing, and that thing happens to coincide with what makes us suffer. There are also echoes of the earlier essay where Proclus discusses Plato’s passage about the many-headed desirous part of the soul; a soul that prioritizes feeding its appetites is literally turned on its head, and such appetites are boundless. It was good to revisit Addey just before getting to this part.

This evening, I finished reading about the soul who chooses the tyrant’s life — in this life, he will eat his own children.

Et en effet ce crime, qui a été commis sous l’influence des derniers termes de façon bestiale, est la dégradation d’une chose grande et noble, dont l’archétype a été accompli par les tout premiers termes de façon intellective. Et pareillement l’ame, quand elle demeure auprès des premiers terms et les imite, vit intellectivement et eneferme en elle-même ses rejetons — sont, je présume, rejetons de l’áme intellective tous les desseins qu’elle entreprend une fois unie aux premiers termes —; mais quand elle s’est approchée des derniers termes et que, par irréflexion, elle est entrée en commerce avec les membres extremes de cette série-là, elle se porte vers les dégradations de ces opérations-là, elle dissout les engendrés dans l’engendrant, à la manière des bêtes et non sous un mode intellectif, et ces engendrés se trouvant alors à l’état divisé, non indivisé. Aussi bien se précipiter vers la plus considérable des tyrannies est une dégradation de la sorte de vie qui administre le Monde entier, et, comme l’âme garde une image de cette vie-là, elle se laisse entrainer vers cette sorte-ci de pouvoir où l’on domine par contrainte sur une multitude.

Proclus, XVIième Dissertation sur La République, ln. 296.16-297.2, trans. Festugière

In the notes, Festugière makes a reference to Kronos. Here, Proclus had just discussed various beings within a God’s series, with the example of Ares’ series earlier in the section (before the part I quoted above); the types of daimones who are involved in lives where horrible things are done are at the lowest and most partial part of any series. Even so, what’s interesting here is how the soul’s glance at the model of Kronos devouring his own children is framed — a person who commits cannibalism of ler own children is participating in the most base form of what Kronos’ activity actually means. It reminds me of the earlier essay on mythic interpretation (Essay 6) where some myths about the Gods were discussed in terms of the deeper meaning behind apparently bad actions.

There is also a really interesting part about the Daimon that I am reproducing here because we are in the second day of the lunar month now, and the day is sacred to Agathos Daimon.

Maintenant, puisque certains estiment, par ignorance, que le daïmôn qui nous est propre et la Fortune correspondant au daïmôn ne different en rien du Bon Génie et de la Bonne Fortune, il est bon d’ajouter par manière d’explication que ces deux-ci sont purement pourvoyeurs de biens — c’est pourquoi on ne les nomme jamais qu’avec l’épithete « bon » qu’ils ne sont pas réservés à nos vies individuelles, mais communs pour tous ceux qui méritent de jouir des biens qu’ils procurent, et qu’ils sont, chacun des deux, à la tête d’une « série » entière. Ce daïmôn-là en revanche, que nous nommons notre daïmôn particulier, et la Fortune président tous deux à des types d’existence humains qui sont tantôt bien partagés tantôt le contraire, à des formes générales de vie tantôt meilleures tantot pires, et c’est en vertu de notre choix de vie qu’ils gouvernent tout ce qui appartient à ces vies.

Proclus, XVIième Dissertation sur La République, ln. 299.13-18, trans. Festugière

As per the passage above (unless Bonne Génie means something different from what I’m assuming), the Agathos Daimon and the Daimon who presides over the life that a soul executes in embodied fashion are not the same. This has often been ambiguous in Internet circles, so hopefully by posting this passage, I and many others can find some much-needed clarity. 😂

Which brings me to a final point tonight: Most of the Proclus is in French because the English translation of Proclus’ commentaries on the Republic is still ongoing. The French-language translation is not digitized, so hopefully, this raises a bit of awareness about what’s in it for people who are curious about the commentaries, yet haven’t been inspired to read them yet.

So that’s that.

I’ll truly end with Hermias because reading his lecture notes on Syrianus lit my soul up last year, and I am ever grateful for that. I sometimes reread passages, and this is one that was close to my heart in May.

Originally and at first the soul was united with the gods and that ‘one’ of its was joined to the gods. Then, withdrawing from that divine union, it descended to intellect and no longer possessed [all] there is (ta onta) in a unified manner and in one but gazed upon it and saw it by means of simple apprehensions and as it were, direct contacts (thixis) [on the part of its intellect]. Then, withdrawing from intellect too and descending to reasoning and discursive thought, it no longer gazed upon it by means of simple apprehensions either, but by moving syllogistically and step by step and one thing after another from premisses to conclusions. Then, departing too from pure reasoning and the psychic mode (idiōma), it descended into generation and was infected with great irrationality and confusion. It must, then, return once more to its own origins and go back once more to the place whence it descended. And in this ascent and restoration these four types of madness assist it. Muse-engendered [madness] brings into concord and harmony those of its parts that have fallen into disorder and have declined into indeterminacy and discord and are afflicted with great confusion, while telestic renders the soul perfect and whole and equips it to operate at the intellective level (noerôs); for Muse-engendered madness tunes and orders the parts alone, while telestic makes it function as a whole and renders it whole that its intellective part too is active. For after it has descended the soul seems to be shattered and weakened and the circle of the Same, i.e. its intellective part, is obstructed (pedan), and the circle of the Other, i.e. its opining part, suffers many bends and twists, (and) therefore it functions (only) one part at a time (merikos) and not with its whole being (kata pasan heautên). Dionysiac possession, then, after the harmonisation of [the soul’s] parts, renders it perfect and makes it function with its whole being and live intellectively. Apollonian, on the other hand, causes all of its multiplicitous (peplêthusmenos) powers and the whole of it[s being] to return to its one and [thus] revives [it]. (Hence [the god] is called Apollo as leading the soul back ‘from the many’ (apo tôn pollôn) to the One.) And, finally, Erotic [possession], receiving the unified soul, joins this one of the soul to the gods and to intelligible beauty. So all the others are, as I said, seen in each of them, but each is named according to what dominates. For, these donor gods themselves being three and their gifts [three] and the [entities] that partake of them [sc. souls] threefold, since the givers (ta didonta) are united in the highest degree and are in each other, on that account the gifts too partake of and share in one another, and the recipient, namely the soul, is fit to [receive] all of the gifts.

Hermias, trans. Baltzly & Share, 93,20-94,20

Having now read quite far into a variety of Platonic material, the passage is much richer than I remember.


  1. It’s weird, not being in a structured environment. Doing stuff in that way is generally seen as a not-good thing when it comes to a lot of weighty matters, but we make the best of things, right, and keep going? I put together an IKEA dresser once that called for 2+ people, and it was hard because it was like a game of Twister and at every moment I was highly aware that one wrong move would lead to splintered, broken wood and a failure to create an actual place to store my clothes, but that dresser has survived a move.

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