Several days ago, staying up late reading Proclus’ Timaeus commentary (blue-covered), I had a dream that I was heavily annotating an orange-red-covered book, probably a Platonist. I tipped in pages and post-its of notes (which I don’t do), underlined, wrote in the margins, and … used a pink highlighter on the pages (which, again, nope — bleed annoys me). Then, I closed the book and realized that I had been writing in a library book. You don’t do this to library books. I was so afraid because I’d have to pay a $125 fee for a replacement if they found out, and even saying nothing, someone could inspect the book, and is it really morally OK to just do that? (No.) And then I realized it was a two-part book so there were two copies to worry about. I awoke anxious and unnerved.
Let’s get started with some Aguirre.
One of the very interesting concepts brought up in Part 6: Form Is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form from Aguirre’s Cosmological Koans: A Journey to the Heart of Physical Reality was related to human cognition. Essentially, while we think of ourselves as unitary, with our perspectives located within us, we are really more like pits within a pane of glass. So much of what we know is extended beyond us, and the deeper we go into this style of thinking, the more we separate our I-ness from what we know. This, obviously, is not precisely how he phrased it. He said:
[W]e are often tempted to think about things like “your mind now” or “the person up until some point in time.” We slice time into past, present, and future as if we might really slice it in this way without doing terrible violence; but we can’t, any more than we can take a slice out of a person to study the operation of their heart. If there is no “left side” of a thought, is there really a “beginning” of a thought, or an “end”?
If we don’t slice up our minds, if we consider them as just a part of a chain of events and outcomes, then look what happens: they become unfettered, extending great distances in space and time and including books, relations, records, laws, statements, and arguments, as well as neurons. Much more than they are extended in space, our minds are extended in time, as undivided processes playing out over many timescales. Our mental life is built largely of memory, and we function as intelligences and agents in the world largely through predicting, envisioning, and acting towards the future. Any amount of introspection will reveal that we tend to spend most of our time in either what was or what might be.
Perhaps we should take this very seriously — this idea that our very existence is contingent on being extended nonlocally in time. Many of the rather unsettling implications we’ve explored in Part 5 have hinged on an assumption that there is a state of a mind, a self, a consciousness, as it is right now.Aguirre, CK, 322/399
First, here’s something you can read about what nonlocality means. Second, this is very much like what is said in the initiatory text for scribes, the Book of Thoth, about writing being a sea, the reeds the shore; whenever we engage in any intellectual activity, it’s in dialogue with others. Third, let’s talk about Socrates. We know that he disdained writing and that Plato wrote in dialogues. I wonder if a Neoplatonist would interpret that by saying that he wanted to retain as much of his cognition within himself, as a symbol of reversion? The extended form of the self as described by Aguirre is very similar to Dionysos being divided by the Titans.
Interestingly, Proclus brings up Mnemosyne and memory in the Timaeus commentary.
‘Remember’ signifies the divided recognition of the discussions among the participants. For there is also memory of all things in the demiurge, the separate and transcendent and unitary recognition that accords with the Remembrance (Mnemosyne) within him, that being the stable foundation of divine intellection, and among the second gods there is subordinate intellection. Those in attendance are images of the latter. On account of this memory pre-existing in the universe, (i) souls in their entirety are founded in the intelligibles, and (ii) the demiurgic principles (logoi) have their inevitable and unchanging character, so that all things that are deprived of it drift away from their own particular causes, like particular souls and the natures of generated things.Proclus, Timaeus commentary v.1, trans. Tarrant, 27.1-12
The footnote on that page reads, “Neoplatonism associates recollection with reversion, so that procession is naturally aligned with forgetfulness.” In bringing up Dionysos, the Titans, and dividedness, obviously there is another way in which this could be viewed. We can place memory, experience, and so on in its totality (maybe its cause, if I’m using that term appropriately), and recognizing how one is placed in relation to it is the key to remaining steady and whole even here.
That reminds me of something I wrote when I was thinking about a text in Buddhism, which got me considering Mnemosyne and the way that “remembering” functions between lives, not within the same one, due to the draught of forgetfulness; it’s the fresh infusion of Mnemosyne, who holds all of this expanse within herself in its totality, that makes such things possible. The memory is at once alien and owned. Anyway. Exciting.
If things are forms of forms of forms of forms, and if forms are order, and order is defined by us (who define macrostates) and by history (which actualizes them) and by the Universe (which undergirds the order), then those forms, it would seem, do not exist in and of themselves. They exist, it would appear, only as created by, and in relation to, us and the Universe. They are, the Buddha might say, emptiness.Aguirre, CK, 333/399
I am not sure what to say here. I wrote a note saying, “I think Platonists would have a different take on the implications of this.” This is because I have emailed with Edward Butler about things over the course of time (and have asked questions on Twitter) and, science librarian that I am, physics often comes up. Little did I anticipate that Proclus would put the different take at, like, the end of page two of his Timaeus commentary.
Those who have led the faction after Plato, not all of them, but at least the more exacting, believed that the physicist should study the form too, alongside matter, tracing back the origins of body to matter and form. For although they may perhaps make mention of the productive cause as well, as when they affirm that nature is the origin of motion, they still deprive it of any vigorous (drastêrios) or strictly productive role, since they do not agree that this [cause] embraces the structures (logoi) of those things that are created through it, but allow that many things come about spontaneously too. That in addition to their failure to agree on the priority of a productive cause to explain all physical things at once, only those that are bundled around generation. For they openly deny that there is any productive [cause] of things everlasting. Here they fail to notice that they are either attributing the whole complex of the heavens to spontaneous generation, or claiming that something bodily can be self-productive.Proclus, Timaeus commentary v.1, trans. Tarrant, 2.16-29
Proclus is not talking about Platonists here, but people who do material investigations. In the margin, I wrote, “Interesting that he’s getting into this so quickly.”
Soon after, Proclus writes that physicists “spent their time on the lowest works of nature that are most deeply embedded in matter, by-passing the heavens as a whole and the orders of encosmic gods, because they had matter in view, abandoning the forms and the primary causes” (Proclus, Timaeus commentary v.1, trans. Tarrant et al., 6.17-21). Edit, 12:41, 6/12: I think one of the big things someone might say nowadays is, “The fact that some of these things in modern physics bother you points to the fact that you’re neglecting the intelligibles (and so on, there’s probably a better way to phrase this) because this is only superficially troubling.”
Where this relates to form is emptiness, emptiness form, is, I think, in that identifying forms with material things is probably not the best way to proceed, and in fact, it will likely lead to emptiness because Matter is the substrate. Aguirre is evoking Plato with his word use, intentionally or not; he makes that connection explicit in the next chapter by critiquing the idea of a Platonic realm because math is actually very subjective.
At one point later on, Aguirre says that objective reality likely contains far, far less than any of us thinks just because so much is based on context.
I will not go into that anymore. Let’s move on.
This [implicit] knowledge [of the everyday world] is bequeathed to us by the extremely highly ordered, information-rich state of the early universe. The information-rich universe created highly ordered galaxies, inside which information-rich stars formed with high-information planets and environments around them. The information and order are stored in the coolness of matter, the binding of atoms and molecules, the emptiness of space, and the resistance of objects to gravitational collapse. It doesn’t feel like an amazing store of information any more than a refrigerated burrito does. But it is a secret, crucial, and (from the standpoint of the universe stretched throughout space and time) incredibly rare resource.Aguirre, CK, 355/399
What is more interesting is the discussion of information, present throughout the book, but especially in sections like the one above. The universe is truly breathtaking.
Okay. Closing the Aguirre.
The reason I had a nightmare about underlining passages and writing notes in the margins is, let’s face it, I’m making multiple notes on each page — so I’m going to exercise some restraint with what I put in this miscellany. The first part of the commentary is like reading a highlights version of what I had been working through over the past few months (the Republic commentaries, mostly in French).
Since we are trying to apprehend what the cosmos is, we should presumably add this further question: what ever is it that views these things and comes to apprehend them through reasoning? He showed that he had kept an eye on this too, when he explicitly declares near the end (90d), that whoever would obtain a life of well-being ‘must liken that which tries to apprehend to what it is apprehending’. For the totality is always in a state of well-being, and our part too will be well-off when likened to the All. Moreover, in this way it will be returned to its cause. Since the human being stands in the same relation to the All as the intelligible man does to the Animal itself, while there secondary things always cling fast to primary ones, and the parts do not stray from the wholes and are found in them, whenever the earthly human being is assimilated to the universe, he will also be imitating his own paradigm in the appropriate fashion, becoming orderly (kosmios) through his likeness to the cosmos, and well-off through his being modelled on a god who enjoys well-being.Proclus, Timaeus commentary v.1, trans. Tarrant, 5.24-6.7
I like highlighting passages that say something interesting about flourishing. This reminds me of what was written by Iamblichus about human happiness being achieved through the Gods; part of it there, as here, is coming into orderliness. It occurs to me that part of “imitating his own paradigm” could be related to paradigms in the Myth of Er and the powers of acquiescence and acceptance. Thus, I will post the fingertrap gif again.
For nature itself, which guides the All, is dependent on the gods and animated by them when it directs the bodily element; though it is not really a god, it is not excluded from the characteristics of the divine because it is illuminated by what are really gods.Proclus, Timaeus commentary v.1, trans. Tarrant, 8.6-8
This reminds me of reading Chlup, who outlined the overwhelming hierarchical system within Platonism very nicely. Nature is Matter with its +1, more elevated due to its participation in the Gods. Proclus discusses Nature and its place in some more extended prefatory remarks, where I wrote marginalia like separation and division in the sensible world and nature as instrument (very beautiful). Let’s look at that last bit:
On this account [Nature] is called ‘instrument of the gods’, not as something lifeless or deriving motion only from another, but somehow possessing self-motion by operating from within itself. For the instruments of the gods have their essence grounded in vigorous principles, and are alive, and keep time with the gods’ activities.Proclus, Timaeus commentary v.1, trans. Tarrant, 12.21-25
This makes me feel warm and fuzzy. Instrument makes me think of harmony as much as it makes me think of tool, especially with the phrase keep time with the Gods’ activities.
One of my favorite parts in what I have read so far is about the feasting.
Moreover all things divine are in all things, and they are unified by one another, so that all are in one and each is in all and they are held together by divine friendship. The Sphere in that realm contains the single conjunction of the gods. […] [B]oth feasting and the banquet are names that pertain to the gods, and not the least to the gods within the universe. For they ascend together with the liberated gods to the banquet and dinner, as Socrates says in the Phaedrus (247a) […]. [And] among the theologians too the sharing out of powers and participation in them is lauded, with divinities enhancing one another and being enhanced by one another.Proclus, Timaeus commentary v.1, trans. Tarrant, 18.1-17
I love the Phaedrus. But it is really interesting how this is described as a banquet — and it’s definitely different to experience the Timaeus commentary firsthand than to read what scholars are saying about these passages.
And that which is intelligible is food for the intelligent according to the oracle, evidently because (i) exchanging feasts belongs ultimately with the gods, and (ii) those who are wiser among humans imitate the gods in this respect too, with each ungrudgingly allowing the others a share of his own private intellections.Proclus, Timaeus commentary v.1, trans. Tarrant, 18.25-29
I like this passage a lot. It made me feel simultaneously lonely and excited. Contextually, the dinner group containing Timaeus and Socrates is sharing information/perspective. Socrates had retold the Republic, and a few others are about to share their own things. It made me wonder if I had to get out more and talk to people. Weird, complicated feelings on a Twitter hiatus, layered on top of some stuff about changes in scholarly dissemination and the alienating, isolating world we all inhabit today.
One could go on here and over-quote. I will be moderate, though, and move on to a small piece about justice.
The discussion about justice is on the inner constitution, for it achieves the correct disposition of the faculties within us; and the discussion about a constitution is in the interests of the justice that arises within the multitude. Hence both amount to the same thing, and justice in the soul, constitution in the state, and orderliness in the cosmos are the same thing; one should not make trouble for oneself by dividing from one another things that are joined by nature.Proclus, Timaeus commentary v.1, trans. Tarrant, 31.11-18
We’re talking about the Republic and its echoes here. When we think about ordering ourselves well and existing among others in a healthy way, it’s important to keep their interconnectedness in mind.
Further, in the totality of souls there is the part that labours over generation, that which helps out with the providential plans of the gods in the cosmic periphery, and that which returns to the intelligible; and among all the creatures in the cosmos there is the race of things mortal, the family of daemons, and the order of gods in heaven. These last are genuine guardians and saviours of the universe, while the daemons provide an escort for their creation, and check all the error in the cosmos, but there exists also a kind of natural providence among mortal things, which brings these into existence and conserves them in accordance with the divine intelligence.Proclus, Timaeus commentary v.1, trans. Tarrant, 34.5-13
This is making a Gods – Daimones – Mortals distinction, so I thought it was useful to share just to show how one conceives of their role in the cosmos. It is followed by a very interesting passage that links different aspects of the city in the Republic to different presiding Gods. I recommend checking that section out if you have the commentary handy.
In fact it should be said to apply to the gods, because, while all are in all, it is according to the individuality of each that it is all things and has the cause of all, one in Sun-wise, another Hermes-wise. For, beginning with the Divine Henads, individuality passes through the intellective entities, through the divine souls, and through their bodies. It is on this account that, of these things too, some have received a share of demiurgic power, some of productive, some of cohesive, and some of divisive, and this is the nature of their action upon [the world of] generation.
So individuality pre-exists among things divine themselves, distinguishing the henads in accordance with the limitlessness there and the divine dyad. But otherness exists among intellects, dividing off both wholes and their parts, allocating the intellective powers, and providing different things with different roles of their own, as a result of which the purity of the intellects is not compromised. And procession and distinction according to their different lives occurs among souls, lives that give some a divine subsistence, others an angelic one, others a demonic one, and other a different kind again; and in bodies there is physical separation, giving different properties to different things.Proclus, Timaeus commentary v.1, trans. Tarrant, 36.7-23
In the margins, I wrote what do I even highlight? because the above is A Lot. Previously, Proclus had been talking about the one-person-one-job thing. Here, while all Gods are in each God, there’s a specific-ness to each of them. Apollon and Hermes are intertwined because Hermes gave Apollon the lyre, and in many respects, the actions of the poet — from the words that are used to the rhetorical carriage in the agora, be it an ancient theater stage or today’s marketing platforms. So are Apollon and Mnemosyne, considering the overlap between mousikê and the need to use spaces of memory as a tool for structure, composition, and form, and Mnemosyne invented language and words. Hermes and Mnemosyne, too — because Hermes invented methods to make words tangible, to turn them into wayfinders even fifteen hundred years after a person’s death. But, while they are interconnected, who is at the center of a mental map really depends on who one decides to focus on, yes?
Anyway, that’s it for now!
The only other thing I have to say is that I am livid about page 4 of the General Introduction to the Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus where the authors decide to liken Proclus and the other people hanging onto polytheism to members of the conservative backlashes in the 1980s onward. I know the intro was written last decade, but hopefully there’s room nowadays to talk about resistance to forced conversion and the preservation of cultural heritage in a good light. I might drop my thoughts about it in a review because someone has to say something.