In June, I finished reading Volume 1 of Proclus’ commentary on Plato’s Timaeus. My copy (the translation by Tarrant) is now filled with marginal notes and heavily underlined, some of the notes in all caps, others paragraphs that spilled over the seams of the margin to end in the whitespace at the bottom or top of the page.
It’s all way too much to discuss here, but I want to pull some threads together based on what may be interesting to readers of this blog.
One major thread running through the first volume of this commentary is the tension within the universe, or warfare; Proclus is commenting on the part of Plato’s Timaeus about Atlantis, and the discussion is about the tensions that lead to the symbol of warfare being used. A second thread — one inherited from the Republic and the commentaries about the Republic — involves the limitations of poetry. A third, and something that many readers may find exciting, is some pretty fun theological stuff about souls and places and the Gods who preside over them.
Finally, remember that this is a reaction post to what I’m reading, so it’s shallow, not a deep dive. I’m a poet and average religious practitioner, not a philosopher or theologian or officiant-type or any kind of expert in anything related to religion. Also, I used Google Lens to copy text from the print book, so while I’ve been proofreading to make sure Google hasn’t done anything awful, it’s possible that the OCR failed in a place or two and I missed it.
Here he shows that poetic ability also cannot extend of itself to the praise of such men, because they have been put by fortune in position for deeds of war. –Proclus, 63.20-25, Book 1 of the Timaeus commentary
The translators decided to call this section “point three: the inadequacies of the poets.” It’s important for the next bit that I’m about to quote, and this is referring to the Timaeus passage that says that neither poets nor sophists can truly do justice to Socrates’ desire to view an image of his ideal city in action.
Difficulties for the account are raised by Longinus and Origenes, who don’t believe that he could have included Homer too among the poets when he says that he has come to the same conclusion not only about the present poets (that’s nothing peculiar) but also about those who had lived long ago. And so, says Porphyry, Origenes spent three whole days shouting and going red in the face, and getting into quite a sweat, saying that the claim (hypothesis) was important and problematic, and very keen to demonstrate that the imitation in (the works of] Homer adequately depicts actions of excellence. Who, after all, is more grandiloquent than Homer, who, even when he brings gods into strife and battle, does not fall short of capturing their likeness, but matches the nature of their deeds in his majestic language. This is the argument that confronts us.Proclus, 63.30-64.12, ibid.
In answer to it Porphyry says that Homer is quite capable of dressing their passions in intensity and majesty and lifting their deeds to an imposing magnificence, but he is not able to convey a dispassionate intellective state or the activities of the philosophic life. Personally I wonder whether Homer could be incapable of these things while Critias is capable or Hermocrates is worthy to speak on the subject.
In the margins, I wrote, “Wow, that is an amazing human touch on this,” referring to the anecdote about the three-day argument. It’s a good reminder that these are Actual People. The heated, multi-century discussion about “which poets is he actually talking about” is very interesting to me because, as a poet, I always feel a bit awkward when the Platonists discuss us like that.
My view is that Plato distinguishes god-given poetic ability from poetic skills, a division that makes the gods responsible for inspired grandiloquence and majesty. It is oracles above all that have this fulsome and grand style, and [Plato] is making the point that the [poetry] derived from human skills does not have the required capacity for praise when compared with the valour of this city and the achievements of men raised in it.Ibid., 65.14-20
This part reminds me of the comment Socrates made in Ion about Tynnichus of Chalcis (534d), who produced very bad poetry overall, plus a divinely-inspired poem that proves that some poems are “not human, not even from human beings, but are divine and from gods; that poets are nothing but representatives of the gods, possessed by whoever possesses them” (Ion, 534e). I’m surprised that this bit didn’t come up in what Proclus had written.
From a poet’s standpoint, last year, I wrote an essay on hieropoeia — creative work that is divine, where one investigates the Gods — and speculative fiction and poetry are ideal spaces to push the boundaries with this, the Gods willing, in part because speculative fiction provides just the right amount of free association for investigating what tokens of the Gods may have been sown here; in many cases, it also provides a safe space to explore theology because we do not have to do any apologia. It’s definitely not the same as philosophy, although (as Proclus will say later in this commentary in a slightly different context), “if people have any use for a voice, they should be using it for hymns” (197.7).
The natural power, being ‘poetic’, is inseparable from matter, whale the class of individual souls, being ‘sophistic’, is nomadic. But before things in motion must come the eternally stable providential plans the gods, and before the domains of change must come the changeless realms.Ibid., 58.24-28
In the margins, I wrote “architecture ➡ concert hall ➡ performance” because, in the section, Proclus has been discussing the foundational plans lain for the perfect state. All poetry is contextual because it requires architecture (which relies on baseline assumptions of what makes a good architectural design for a performance space to begin with and a bunch of other preliminaries), which then requires the construction, which then requires the poet to utilize the space that le finds limself in for the peformance. I think that’s what this is getting at by poetic, perhaps? It’s definitely useful to relate the providential plans of the Gods to architecture.
For the atoms of Epicurus could more readily come together to make a cosmos than a random combination of nouns and verbs could make the perfect sentence.Ibid., 59.20-22
This was just salty, and I literally laughed. It’s referring to Plato being intentional with his writing.
So as Homer’s Zeus, sitting upon the to fold of Olympus, and remaining in his own accustomed oneness, sends the gods in charge of cosmic rivalry to the Greek war, so to does Socrates, taking up a position of purity in the intelligible kind of constitution, prepare those that follow him, who are able to laud the movement and power of this constitution — summoning the science of Timaeus to a general study of the universe, and preparing the others for a general and concise summation of the parts. Just as he gave a general description of the whole constitution, so he wants its power to be hymned by the others; but, since all these accounts bear an image of the creative tasks and the whole encounter is [an image] of cosmic creation, it is quite reasonable that Socrates said that he had arranged himself in order and was ready to receive the accounts, having equipped himself for the discourse with the appropriate form of excellence, i.e., orderliness.Ibid., 73.5-22
At the beginning of the Timaeus commentary, Socrates had recapped his description of the city in the Republic, and now we’re moving into the hymning (😁). I just really liked the analogy in this paragraph, so I decided to quote it.
Moreover, assuming that we have observed the analogue of the constitution in the entire cosmos, we must surely also take note of this ‘war’ that is embedded in the whole of nature.Ibid., 78.12-14
War makes me uncomfortable. As anyone who has been reading this blog for the past year knows, I’ve been devastatedly concerned about the deepening divisions and strife caused by many of the technologies we have embraced with no regulation or psychological safety testing. On some level, strife like this is natural in the cosmos, and many of the deep questions I have are about where to draw the line between necessary strife and superfluous strife. I am also very concerned that whenever I say something about social media and divisiveness and hyper-division, readers think I am talking about whichever group(s) they themselves have decided are enemies, not about all of us. As Indila says in her song “Ego,” “We are the war, the war, en nous-même.”
This passage — and really, the entirety of the commenatary on the Atlantis section of the Timaeus — got me thinking about that bitterness that I hold and the reasons it took hold last year. I am unabashedly anti-conflict, and all I actually want is for things I do to make a difference to other people in a way that helps them grasp at the beauty of the Gods that is always there.
Also, a few weeks ago, I actually (because I was curious) used the Internet to generate my natal chart, and the Sun, Mercury, and Mars are apparently in my Ninth House. I have no idea what that means, but based on some things I have read online, maybe I should try to be less apprehensive about this lot and do what I need to do even with the howling winds and isolation.
Anyway. Proclus continues by talking about the oppositions.
For the divine homer develops oppositions, setting Apollo against Poseidon, Ares against Athena, the River against Hephaestus, Hermes against Leto, and Hera against Artemis. It is necessary, you see, view generation in incorporeals, bodies and combinations of the two, and to posit Poseidon and Apollo as demiurges of all of becoming, the former universally and the latter partially; to make Hera and Artemis as the leaders of animal birth, the former of rational life and the latter of physical life; to make Athena and Ares responsible for the rivalry that runs through both, through being and through life, her for the [rivalry] determined by intellect, him for the more material and more impassioned kind, and to make Hermes and Leto the chiefs of the double perfection of the soul, the former of the one [achieved] through cognitive powers and the offering of reasoned arguments, the other through the smooth and willing and assenting elevation of the vital forces; to make Hephaestus and Xanthus the chiefs of all bodily composition and of the properties within it, the former of the more active properties, and the latter of the more passive and more material so to speak.Ibid., 78.27-79.20
As for Aphrodite he leaves her all by herself so that she may be the light behind all unification and harmony, fighting as an ally of the weaker powers, because in the things of this world the one is weaker than plurality.
This is really beautiful. I’m a bit curious as to what is meant by Apollon and partiality, but I do have some questions in general based on some things Proclus says about Apollon in this commentary.
The competitions for recitation are analogous to the challenges souls confront as they weave their own lives together with the universe. This recitation resembles the interlinked and interwoven life of the universe, for involves the imitation of the intellective forms just as the former involves the imitation of heroic actions and characters along with the preservation of this connecting thread. The phrase many poems from many poets reflects the many natures and many cosmic , and in sum the diversity of nature’s imitations, while the youthful poems mirror the forms that are for ever in their prime – ever complete, fertile, and able to act on other things. So much for that.Ibid., 89.17-28
“Souls weaving their lives together” is very beautiful imagery, as is the concept of the connecting thread.
It is not with regard to popular poetry-composition that mention has been made of Solon’s poems, but it is because he blended philosophy with composition. For intellect is in charge of both encosmic works and the composition of the whole. Praise [of Solon] is attributed to another person, Amynander, because the judging role is separate from that of creating and fathering, as we have learned from the Phaedrus.Ibid., 89.29-90.5
Interesting. People seem to discuss Solon a lot in commentaries?
What then are the cycles of things in the cosmos? One must indeed postulate that there is always generation and always destruction in the totality. For that which is perceptible is ‘coming to be and passing away, but never really real’. But this generation and destruction must be postulated in one way for the heaven and in another for material things. In the former realm the motion and the change of figure is fixed beforehand, and it is because of those changes that generation is governed and turns back upon its proper cycle. But in the latter cycle now some elements and now others gain the upper hand.Ibid., 105.3-12
The bit about “now some elements and now others gain the upper hand” reminds me of cosmology and quantum physics, specifically what I had been reading in Aguirre and his discussion of regions of spacetime in generative flux. Usually, when I read the Platonists, I’ve been crosswalking the term heaven(s) and replacing it with a mishmash of concepts in cosmology that relate to the common substratum/dance hall upon which everything we see in the physical world is based, except that’s not entirely an accurate description because it’s not actually me trying to map the idea of the heavens onto something material, but vice-versa. The last sentence likely doesn’t make any sense, and I apologize because poetry is usually easier when I want to talk about things like that because context is everything. 😅😰
So if the universe is ever indestructible, while more partial things are easily destroyed, it is with good reason that what lies between the two should be ranked among things hard to destroy, waiting to undergo their destruction after long intervals of time. Those things that endure for the entire cosmic cycle are indestructible and imperishable, for there is no configuration able to destroy them, since all have been brought on in the course of an entire cycle of the universe, while partial and particular things easily admit of dissolution. But those partial things that are concentrated are dissolved only after long intervals of time, but are dissolved nevertheless.Ibid., 116.10-18
I wrote in the margins that the second sentence would be beautiful to quote in the Seven Papers, my longer-term speculative fiction project, because it reminds me of something that will happen close to the climax. I like collecting things that remind me of what I have to do in the writing there because I’m concerned that I am not good enough to nail it and that I will instead fumble like an Olympic gymnast destined for silver.
Additionally, this is one of the sections where I can easily see a crosswalk with concepts in modern cosmology and quantum theory. The symbols are everywhere.
It seems to me also that the discourse (logos) of the Pythagoreans, which prepares souls to recollect their former lives as well, imitates this study of the Egyptians. For just as in the case of one man — or one soul rather — duty requires that he grasp his different lives, so too rise of one race it requires that they grasp their different cycles. So as among the former the recollection of their previous existences perfective of their souls, so too among the latter the historical study of earlier cycles contributes very greatly to their perfection in wisdom. Furthermore such watchful investigation also assimilates them to the arrangement of the All, since they are imitating the established formal principles of nature, through whose changeless permanence order falls to changing things too.Ibid., 124.5-17
I was actually deeply surprised that reincarnation came up here even though I probably shouldn’t have been. The bit about one soul needing to remember ler past lives and the perfective bit is intriguing.
So how is it that the luminary influence of the gods is found among things here too? How does their residence in temples come about? How the same place occupied at different times by different spirits? Perhaps it is the case that, while the gods have eternal lots and divide up the earth according to divine numbers in the same manner as the heavens are partitioned, things here too are illuminated to the extent that they share the readiness. This readiness is brought about both by the revolution of the heaven, which through given configurations pro- vides given things with a power greater than their present nature and also by nature in its entirety as it puts divine codes into each of the illuminated things, through which they participate through their very own nature in the gods; for because nature is linked to the gods it place different images of them in different things. It is also brought about by opportune times, according to which the composition of other things too is managed, and by temperate climatic conditions. And in general all that concerns us contributes to an increase or a decrease in their readiness.
So whenever, in accordance with the conjunction of these many causes, readiness for participation in the gods arises in something with a natural disposition to change, the divine shines out in these things too where it has previously been concealed by the unreadiness of its future recipients. It has the same lot eternally and is offering participation in itself, but participation is not taken up by these unready things. Rather, just as when particular souls are choosing different lives at different times, some choose those appropriate to their own gods, while others choose different sorts and forget what belongs to them, so too with holy places some have been adapted to the [god] which drew the lot for that place, while others are linked up with some other order, and on this account some ‘travel a more prosperous course’ and others less so, as the Athenian Stranger says.Ibid., 139.18-140.15
This bit echoes Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries. I also wrote “YES!” in all caps in the margins, followed by, “This is what I said when I was in my early 20s,” because on the Old KALLISTI before I sunsetted that blog, I recall waxing very verbose about some offhand thing a guest speaker had said in the classical mythology course I had taken with Scott Bradbury about Gods loving things that are like themselves and beauty and so on, and the phrase had absolutely infected me.
Later on in the margins, I summarized, “Places are like souls, ‘choosing’ paths like or unlike their leader-God.”
What I said in my post on interpretatio still stands. However, over the past week, I have been having engrossing thought-problem walks through things like how one might know a God is the same in two different places, and I concluded that it’s experientially resolvable. Otherwise, being in the train of a specific God risks becoming a tad folkish because it would mean that to follow a specific God, we would always need to ensure that we incarnated in a way that was tied to a specific culture within a specific sentient species. The Gods are not the same everywhere, but they overlap enough that there is a certain degree of freedom in our wide-dance-hall universe for us to follow them in a variety of lived contexts.
What would a temple of Apollon look like on Europa?
So there is nothing surprising that it should be said that one goddess has drawn as her lot both Athens and Sais. For we should not think of the gods too in this way — the way that particular souls are not of a nature to inhabit two bodies, because their exercise of providential care comes with a passing relation. Rather there is participation in the same power in widespread places, in the one power there is a many, and participation occurs in one way at such and such a place and in other ways in others — sameness predominating in some, difference in others. So if what we are saying is true, then (i)) the lots of the gods are eternally established in the All, and (ii), this being the case, there are also manifestations of them in time, differentIbid., 141.13-24
in different places.
See my comments above.
But we have said that it is like what happens in the case of souls. While every soul also has a presiding god in any case, some choose lives that really belong to other gods. Accordingly, while every place is a lot of some particular god, there are times when it becomes another’s lot, either because of the passing of certain cycles which make it ready, or because of some rite established by humans, when the allotment is double, one according to essential nature, the other according to temporal condition.Ibid., 145.25-30
This is about souls, presiding Gods, and so on, again. I like pulling quotations like this out because there are some places where people miss the mark in contemporary polytheistic practice. We all belong to some God or other (not in a creepy way, but in an intrinsic way), and it’s just a question of what shape that takes in a specific incarnation.
One of the small I-occasionally-think-about-this-while-washing-dishes questions I have that is related to the above passage is what this actually means as far as embodiment goes. For example, if philosophers are associated with Athene, presumably Athenaic souls are at an advantage there when it comes to reversion because there is no double allotment at play for them? What about the rest of us?
Shortly he will call the goddess both ‘wisdom-loving’ and ‘war-loving’. Accordingly, so that his depiction of the constitution of the Athenians and the Saitians might come to accord with his model, he gave sufficient indication of their training for war in what was said, whereas in these words he presents their attitude to wisdom — so that in the one he might present a reflection of Athena’s love of war, and in the other of her love of wisdom. So what is her wisdom? It is the study of the whole of hypercosmic and cosmic reality, from which, after the primary goods that are perfective of souls, a certain ease was established for human life, proceeding as far as mantic and medicine, and viewing these in one way among the invisible causes, in another at a cosmic level, and in the lowliest way at the level of human practice. Since learning is immaterial and this goddess is transcendent, she accordingly reveals to those that are akin to her all parts of her wisdom, both divine and human.Ibid., 157.27-158.12
I am very curious about the word mantic being used here because I usually associate that with Apollon. However, I also quoted this as a head nod to Athene, especially since her sacred days are coming up soon. 😁
Porphyry said that medicine too had good reason to come from Athena, because Asclepius is intellect of the lunar order, just as Apollo is intellect of the solar one. The divine Iamblichus criticized these claims, saying that they miserably confuse the substances of the gods, and, to suit the context of the moment, incorrectly distribute the intellects and souls of encosmic things. For Asclepius too should be placed under Helios [the Sun], and should proceed from him into the earthly region, so that, just like the heaven, so too generation through secondary participation should be held together by this divinity, being filled by it with proportion and with harmonious blending.Ibid., 159.25-160.6
I was raising my eyebrow at the first sentence. Overall, though, perhaps this is the effect of centering a specific deity in a text like this? I could say a lot of things about Apollon if I were writing about him, and in fact, it would be easy of me to place him at the center. So many thoughts.
For the gods themselves are eternally united, but things managed by them are infected with such division. That’s how one must contemplate these things in private.Ibid., 173.26-29
This part comes from the section that is connecting the Athenians and Athene, the Atlanteans and Poseidon. Poseidon, as we know, is the God who presides over the rulership of the waters and thus over generation, as the ocean is a generative symbol. Athene, recalling the passage quoted at 157, is not about that at all, and this explains much of the conflict. This also recalls (I think?) the image of the Gods feasting together earlier in the commentary and how different that is from the material world. The use of the word infected in the translation caught my eye.
So whether you start with the gods and speak of Olympians and Titans, or with intellect of rest and motion or of same and different, or with souls of rational and irrational, or with bodies of heaven and generation, or if you partition substances in any other way, throughout all the divisions the whole of people inside the Pillars of Heracles will correspond to the better and those outside to the worse. For that is where the real ‘sea of similarity’ is, and all enmattered life and the life which proceeds to extension and multiplicity away from the one. So whether in Orphic fashion you wanted to set the Olympic and Titanic races in opposition and to praise the one side that masters the other; or whether in Pythagorean fashion to see the two opposing columns passing from the top right down to the lowest things with the better arranging the inferior; or whether in Platonic fashion to study ‘much unlimited in the All, and much limit’, as we have learned in the Philebus (30b), and the unlimited as a whole together with the measures of limit bringing about a generation that stretches through all encosmic things, you would be able to grasp one thing from all of these — that the entire composition of the cosmos is joined together in harmony out of this rivalry. And if the noble Heraclitus was looking to this when he said ‘War is Father of all’, then not even he was speaking strangely.Ibid., 174.5-24
This was an interesting juxtaposition of several systems, and I like it.
The bit about the Pillars of Heracles is uncomfortably funny, admittedly, because of where I (and many of us) live.
For some things are always within matter, others always transcend it, and others still sometimes become subject to the material races, and sometimes are re-enrolled in separable life — very much like the drama (we are caught up in, when we are sometimes ranked under the Titanic order, sometimes under the Olympian, sometimes belonging to generation, and at others to the heaven. This privilege belongs to particular souls on account of the ever unvarying, soul-uplifting providence of the gods. For just as, on account of there being generation-producing gods, souls too descend who serve their will, so it surely is that, on account of the pre-existence of uplifting causes ascent from here also remains possible for our own souls.Ibid., 185.28-186.7
The comparison to the ascent/descent of the soul here was nice.
[T]hose who listen to the discussion in the Timaeus must have previously had the benefit of the Republic, and, when set in order by it, arrive in that state to hear the doctrines about the cosmos — demonstrating that they have become very similar to the cosmic order of the universe by their education.Ibid., 202.8-13
The reason I diverted from reading the dialogues of Plato in the order recommended by Iamblichus is that I had read neither the Republic nor the Laws. By the grace of Hermes who gives lucky finds and the rest of the Gods, I randomly opened this book to this exact page shortly after I got it and altered my reading plan. I’m perpetually grateful that I did because I don’t know how successful I would have been at reading the Timaeus and this commentary if I had not.
So that’s it from Volume 1.