On Friday night, I hit the second large chunk of text (299.21-303.23) of Proclus’ Timaeus commentary that deals with the theological meat that I really enjoy reading. This morning, while scrubbing dirty things in the kitchen, cleaning the shower with an Exciting New Eco-Friendly Scrub that Actually Works As Advertised (lol adulthood), and so on, I reflected on how lovely it is that these passages have survived to the present day — as if their survival is a libation given to Athene from Hermes. (See Note 1.)
This commonplace book post will only deal with those sections. (See Note 2.) I’m not done reading Book II yet, and most of the quotations I am pulling are ones that I think would be useful and interesting to people who pray.
For people unfamiliar with the Miscellany of Quotations posts, this is a live reading of something out-of-field for me. These posts are usually discussing Platonic texts I’m reading with a smattering of other stuff depending on relevance. I like doing these because it’s a great opportunity to publicly organize my scribbled marginalia, and I hope that you are given jewels of serendipity. If you’re interested in reading this and have not yet read many Platonic dialogues, I recommend reading this post.
Let’s start with 206.26-214.12, which the translators have sectioned off and titled, “Excursus on prayer and the gods.”
Proclus is (almost) commenting on where Timaeus says:
TIMAEUS: That I will, Socrates. Surely anyone with any sense at all will always call upon a god before setting out on any venture, whatever its importance. In our case, we are about to make speeches about the universe—whether it has an origin or even if it does not—and so if we’re not to go completely astray we have no choice but to call upon the gods and goddesses, and pray that they above all will approve of all we have to say, and that in consequence we will, too. Let this, then, be our appeal to the gods; to ourselves we must appeal to make sure that you learn as easily as possible, and that I instruct you in the subject matter before us in the way that best conveys my intent.Timaeus 27c-d, trans. D.J. Zeyl, in Plato’s Complete Works
The sentence about calling on a God before setting out on a venture reminds me of “begin with Zeus on every man’s lips” from the translation of Aratus’ “In the Beginning” in Pure Pagan: Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments.
But Proclus isn’t technically commenting on that section directly yet.
First, he brings in the Orphic theogonic fragments that are under significant discussion in the detective work scholars have done on them:
[Timaeus] turns his attention to invocations of the gods and prayers, imitating in this way too the Maker of the universe, who before undertaking the entire creative task is said to enter the oracular shrine of Night to fill himself with divine thoughts from there, to receive the principles of the creative task and, if it is permissible to speak thus, to resolve all difficulties and above all to encourage his father [Kronos] to collaborate with him in the creative task. [….] throughout what follows he keeps on invoking the goodwill of his father. For how else would he be in a position to fill all things with gods and make the sense-perceptible realm resemble the Living-Thing-itself (autozôion) unless he stretches out towards the invisible causes of the universe and, himself filled with these, is in a position to ‘bring forth again from his heart wondrous deeds’? It is necessary, therefore, that before all else we obtain some clear knowledge about prayer, what its essence is and its perfection, and from where it is instilled in souls.Proclus, Timaeus Book II, 206.26-207.23
In the margins, I wrote, “This is even more beautiful than expected.” The above does not capture the part I omitted — the set-apart quotations from Orphic poems — but one of the most surprising things to me about this passage was the emphasis on collaboration and ancestral buy-in on the part of Zeus (the Maker under discussion given the context) despite Kronos being in chains. It’s a taking-in of what is and a reordering of it, and that is a really beautiful thing that we often miss in discussions of the theological succession myths that put Zeus and Kronos in a wholly adversarial light. The reality of their cultus and theological link is a bit more complicated.
He continues on to discuss Porphyry’s assessment of the ancients’ views on prayer, which range from hard atheism to soft atheism, with soft atheism being a rejection of providence even though the Gods’ existence is affirmed; the theistic position is that prayer admits uncertainty and chance, and prayer is effective at “the things that happen [which] could occur otherwise” (207.24f, with the quotation from 208.5). When I approach prayer, it is usually from a possibility standpoint, so the summary of Porphyry’s view is useful information to have survived. The supple space between a deterministic approach and a non-deterministic approach is in constellations of tiny uncertainties that can change and impact what happens in the future; prayer is one of those choices. And, too, we pray, but also move our arms as we swim (to pull from Aesop’s Drowning Sailor).
All things that exist are offspring of the gods, are brought into existence without intermediation by them and have their foundation in them. For not only does the continuous procession of entities reach completion, as each of them successively obtains its subsistence from its proximate causes, but it is also from the very gods themselves that all things in a sense are generated, even if they are described as being at the furthest remove from the gods, [indeed] even if you were to speak of matter (hulê) itself. For the divine does not stand aloof from anything, but is present for all things alike. For this reason, even if you take the lowest levels [of reality], there too you will find the divine present. The One is in fact everywhere present, inasmuch as each of the beings derives its existence from the gods, and even though they proceed forth from the gods, they have not gone out from them but rather are rooted in them. Where, indeed, could they ‘go out’, when the gods have embraced all things and taken hold of them in advance and still retain them in themselves? For what is beyond the gods is That which is in no way existent, but all beings have been embraced in a circle by the gods and exist in them. In a wonderful way, therefore, all things both have and have not proceeded forth. They have not been cut off from the gods. If they had been cut off, they would not even exist, because all the offspring, once they were wrenched away from their fathers, would immediately hasten towards the gaping void of non-being. In fact they are somehow established in them [the gods], and, to put the matter in a nutshell, they have proceeded of their own accord, but [at the same time] they remain in the gods.
But those [beings] which proceed forth must also return, imitating the manifestation of the gods and their reversion to the cause, so that they too are ordered in accordance with the perfective triad, and are again embraced by the gods and the most primary henads. They receive a second kind of perfection from them, in accordance with which they are able to revert to the goodness of the gods, so that, being rooted at the outset in the gods, through their reversion they can be fixed in them once again, making this kind of circle which both begins from the gods and ends with them. All things, therefore, both remain in and revert to the gods, receiving this ability from them and obtaining in their very being a double signature, the one in order to remain there, the other so that what proceeds forth can return. And it is possible to observe these not only in souls, but also in the lifeless beings that follow them.Proclus, Timaeus Book II, 209.14-210.15
The rooted circular imagery makes me think of a living wreath whose roots are grounded in sun and who grow towards the sun yet again upon germination. This gets to something I had written in Note 2 (below) about the difference between grounding one’s exploration of the world in the Gods versus not — there is no separation point where there just suddenly are not Gods. The idea of it is absurd.
Continuing, Proclus writes:
It is to this reversion that prayer offers an enormous contribution by means of the ineffable symbols of the gods, which the Father of the souls has sowed in them. Prayer attracts the beneficence of the gods towards itself. It unifies those who pray with the gods who are being prayed to. It also links the Intellect of the gods with the formulations of those who pray, inciting the will (boulêsis) of those who contain the goods in a perfect way within themselves to share them unstintingly. Prayer is the creator of divine persuasion and establishes all which is ours in the gods.Proclus, Timaeus Book II, 210.30-211.8
I wrote 🤩 in the margins because what is described about prayer above is very lovely. It is also direct, and it gets at some of the things I have previously written about, such as ensuring that one is in an appropriate state for prayer both physically and mentally. Meditation, just as one example, is a self-help technique that improves focus and the ability to reach that “still space” like a blade’s edge when contemplating a God, with the God as the focus as if we have done a resting awareness technique that directs its awareness towards them and not towards watching the thoughts and sensations of the body.
Proclus gives information in the next paragraphs for what he terms “perfect and true prayer,” which includes steps ranging from (1) knowing the divine ranks and how to approach them appropriately; (2) a “process of familiarization” that reminds me a bit of what I mentioned above about good states, but with an added and more emphasized educational dimension; (3) “touching”; (4) “approaching,” which includes some discussion of divine light; and (5) unification, by which “we no longer belong to ourselves but to the gods, remaining in the divine light and encircled in its embrace” (211f). I wrote “YES!” with two underlines in the margins. I think it is helpful here to frame belonging in the sense I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog and on social media, where belonging is referring to something intrinsic, not something separable like ownership. One of the issues here is that there is rarely adequate vocabulary for discussing stuff like this, and there is never completely useful vocabulary for it, either.
It is through prayer that the ascent is brought to completion and it is with prayer that the crown of virtue is attained, namely piety towards the gods.Proclus, Timaeus Book II, 212.5-7
What follows is some discussion of cultivating virtue, as that is crucial. It also alludes to (1) and (2) mentioned above, where someone needs to build a good foundation before moving on. (Obviously, as with the above, I’m just describing what I think is going on here; I tend to focus on encouraging people to pray on this blog, so what I draw away from these passages is informed by that lived experience.)
The modes of prayer bits at 213ff are also worth pointing out, as Proclus breaks down many types of prayers (like praying for rain vs. being lifted up vs. philosophical vs. institutional), and Proclus emphasizes that making changes to the classificatory separations is not a correct alteration. That’s really interesting, and I wonder if I’ve read that correctly and how that would play out in an applied setting. Does that mean that if I pray to Apollon I should do two separate prayers if they fall in two different areas? Is this because it’s important to be one-pointed when approaching the Gods? So many questions!
So that was the into bit, and now this is the real commentary about the Timaeus passage I quoted earlier.
I declare, therefore, that all people grasp hold of the knowledge concerning the gods in the true manner, when they (a) apply a pure mind to the investigation, (b) build up their store of what is noble and good in the excellences of the soul, and not in human concerns or external contingencies, and when they (c) observe the power of providence penetrating the whole of reality and bringing all things into harmony with the universe, in order that both the whole and its parts be in the best possible state and nothing be without share in the concern that extends from the gods to each individual thing.Proclus, Timaeus Book II, 215.3-12
I wrote something about my experience reading the Hermias commentary and why it may have been so overwhelming for me that it was a religious experience. It’s related to (c) above, specifically a deep intuition of providence and the way that the roads we have taken in life seem to have always been lain out by the Gods and how dizzyingly disorienting that can be.
Beyond that, the things that have been translated as in-situ lists feel very grounding and useful to me. Perhaps this is because I compulsively make lists. The section on prayer is filled with lists, as if the Goddess had inspired her philosopher to bestow down the line things that would be theologically useful after the worst happened in antiquity.
This is what good sense provides the souls with. It is not a human disposition, approximating to what is called self-control, but rather an inspired activity of the soul, which (a) has reverted both to itself and the divine and (b) sees the cause of all things which is among the gods. It (c) observes how both the whole and the parts proceed from there and (d) attributes to them the signatures of the gods in us, which are instilled in us and serve as starting-points for the return to the gods. It (e) finds the symbols of the gods in each thing, even the most insignificant, and through these it (f) appropriates each of them in relation to the gods.Proclus, Timaeus Book II, 215.20-29
The final sections here (e,f) are similar to what I’m getting at with Note 2 below about considering the cosmos and things we know about the world now. Beginning from the Gods in everything is extremely important.
On the following page, Proclus is talking about the Gods’ role in decision-making. He says, “when choosing we need their assistance that when making decisions we should discover what is profitable and in choosing we should not through passion incline to what is worse, but all the more when we act and venture upon any deed we should observe that self-movement has but the feeblest force, whereas the whole is dependent on divine providence” (216.5-10). This reminded me of something very moving I read in Yoga International recently about advice given by Ramakrishna to a disciple suffering from substance abuse; the person was told to offer the first sip of any alcohol to the Divine Mother. This person eventually did not get drunk because the thought of consecrating alcohol and behaving shamefully in front of a God was so potent that it was useful for his self-recovery.
The decision to pray is a desire for reversion to the gods. This desire guides the desirous soul and unites it to the divine, which in our view was the very first task of prayer. One should not, therefore, decide first and pray later, but rather the decision and the practice of prayer should go together in accordance with the measure of the intention, now more and now less. And this is the task of true prayer, that the things for which we pray are held in common with the gods, in accordance with our capacities and our activities, and that we complete them in cooperation with the gods.Proclus, Timaeus Book II, 221.21-30
This reminds me (again, yes?) of Athene and the Drowning Sailor from Aesop, where the prayer for aid needs to be accompanied by actually swimming. It’s important to be active while praying, not only by praying for what is possible, but also by ensuring that we do what we can to complete the circle.
So now we’re at the place where I jump over a lot of the Timaeus commentary (look at the number change in the citation) to what I read last night and what I was thinking about while scrubbing down the shower.
But it is also necessary for the soul, after becoming an cosmos and assimilating itself to the extent possible to the entirety the intelligible cosmos, to make its approach to the Maker of the universe, and from this approach to become familiar with him somehow through its continual concentration — for untiring activity focused an object summons forth and kindles the rational principles we have in us — and through this familiarity to stand at the gate of the Father and be unified with him. This is the discovery, to encounter him, to be unified, to be together as the soul alone with him alone, to obtain this self-manifestation, to snatch itself from all other activity and focus on him, when it will think that even scientific arguments are stories, as it is together with the Father and feasts with him on the truth of Being and ‘in a pure light it is purely initiated in perfect and unwavering visions’. The act of discovering is something like this, not a discovery involving the faculty of opinion, for that is ambivalent and no further advanced than irrational life. It is also not scientific, for that is syllogistic and composite, and does not attain the intellective essence of the intellective Demiurge. Rather it occurs in virtue of the intuitive act of concentrated vision, the direct contact with the Intelligible and the unification with the demiurgic intellect.Proclus, Timaeus Book II, 301.23-302.15
This passage cross-references Plotinus very heavily, especially the bit “the soul alone with him alone,” which is fun. Contextually, it’s discussing this part of the Timaeus (28c) that Zeyl translates, “Now to find the maker and father of this universe [to pan] is hard enough, and even if I succeeded, to declare him to everyone is impossible.” The bit about the individual being able to succeed but not able to declare him to everyone is what started the renewed discussion of the approach that was earlier outlined several paragraphs above (see the one with YES in all caps if you decide to skim up).
For it is only when the soul has passed beyond the distraction of birth and the [process of] purification and beyond the illumination of scientific knowledge that its intellectual activity and the intellect in us lights up, anchoring the soul in the Father and establishing it immaculately in the demiurgic thoughts. It connects light with light, not in the manner of scientific knowledge, but in a manner that is more beautiful, more intellective and more unificatory.Proclus, Timaeus Book II, 302.17-23
I love the emphasis in the language on illumination and being lit up. This is 😍.
The sections I want to discuss end in silence.
How could the soul, having found him in this way, be able to report what it had seen by means of nouns and verbs and convey this to others? After all, because discursive thought proceeds through combination, it is unable to express the nature that is unified and simple. […] If discovery takes place by the soul who keeps silent, how could the flow of language through the mouth be sufficient to bring to light the essential nature of what has been discovered?Proclus, Timaeus Book II, 303.14-24
This is always the frustrating part of any intense “knowing” experience, isn’t it? It is so hard to put into concepts, let alone words that easily line up appropriately. We move through the to-do list (or the Gods introduce us to the to-do list, or some combination) and try to do better, and it all starts from a place of faith/firmness, truth, and love.
Note 1: Hermes is the Messenger of the Gods, and to me, part of that “glue” of that messenger aspect is that he makes the realm of possibility concrete. Like, for instance, he is the creator of the lyre that Apollon will tune and use to harmonize all things into unity; he is continuously giving that lyre, and Apollon is continuously receiving, tuning and playing it; these things do not take place in time. Likewise, I’m puzzling through things related to the inflection point between potential and the lived material world around us — attempting to think of this in a way beginning from the Gods and resisting untoward levels of materialism and the privileging of the material — and at that inflection point, so much relies on “messages” and possibility spaces before they are actualized in the experiential world. It’s that glue that Hermes presides over. This does admittedly remind me a bit of 256.25 in Proclus’ Republic essays where he describes Hermes and Iris as the heads of the angelic series, with a male/female dichotomy, in the service of the universal Demiurges. Sorry. That was a tangent, but the continuous giving/receiving of the lyre is something that slipped into my mind while I was praying to Hermes on Friday and I furiously wrote an email to myself about this.
Note 2: I have a lot I could say about the other things. For instance, one of the big things of interest to me is to figure out a good way to think about the cosmos in a way that hymns the Gods. Usually, when someone says this, le may be saying it due to materialist concerns. The nihilists among us seem to think that exoplanets are some kind of religion-shattering thing, especially when other life is on some of them. Thinking about these things and seeing these arguments in the public sphere can shake people. My standpoint is more that I want to experiment, especially when it comes to composing prayers and developing solid grounding in the Gods, with new imagery rooted in a true foundation. Our knowledge of the Gods is constantly unfolding, and everything we learn about the world around us presents a new way of thinking about them. Applied stuff still needs a solid root in theory and tradition to thrive.