I read the final 108 translated pages of Proclus’ Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus yesterday. It took about six hours, and I was so excited about it that it was difficult to sleep — well worth it, though, as several months ago when I was in the thick of harmonic ratios, it seemed like the words ahead were endless. At one point I started pacing in between reading because it was a lot to take in, and I get antsy and restless when I have a lot going on in my head. I walked into a wall and now have a bruise and some healed cuts where one of my toes and the baseboard exchanged blows. I would probably have fallen into a well had one been in my way.
There is a lot that I could say about the final book of the commentary, but I want to start with something about trees. Please note that all of this is exploratory because I am burning alive with excitement and want to grapple with some of the things I have read.
There’s an image in the Platonic commentators of being rooted to sky, and the imagery of rooting is something that I’ve started playing with in poetry and conceptually. My first encounter happened in a passage from Proclus’ Parmenides commentary, which I read last spring/summer. My marginalia preserve the exact moment when the analogy rooted into me (😏) with the words this is linguistically exciting: “[…] for even as trees by their ‘topmost’ parts are fixed in the earth and are earthy in virtue of that, so in the same way the divine entities also are by their summits rooted in the One, and each of them is a henad and one through its unmixed unity with the One” (Proclus, trans. Morrow & Dillon, 1050f). Conceptually, someone can also think of rooting up as a way to remain in touch with the Gods even though generation can be a very frustrating and scream-inducing experience, and it’s useful to think about it in theurgic contexts.
Now in the Timaeus commentary, there’s another passage. Contextually, as far as I understand, Proclus is discussing the experience of the newly-embodied soul as it suddenly hits a state of extreme disorder. It evokes elements of Yoga philosophy (big caveat: there are some differences in how each approaches discussing the problems the soul faces) in the ways that the interactions with the body are described, especially the desiring and spirited part of the soul in Platonism and how these can dominate and lead reason into unfortunate situations. At one point, Proclus writes:
And it seems that being against itself tends to pull apart the single life of the soul and makes the rational faculty in disagreement with itself, while being at an angle makes it non-rational (for the whole of it is carried in the direction of the body and of matter), and its being upside down puts it in the category of plants — for among these the head has been turned into a root!Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus, Book 5 (Volume 6), trans. Tarrant, 342.25-29
Soon to be followed by:
[[Plato]] likens what is divine in us to the head, and what is inferior to the feet, for that is what is in charge and it is they that have the position of rulers, as he himself will say as he goes on. And with the resting of the head upon the ground he compares the slavery of the divine and leading part in us, and with the lifting and aerial projection of the feet [he compares] the tyranny of the non-rational, while the result of such a configuration [he compares] with the affection that has befallen the soul. […] First, view the order, the way instead of upright he made the body horizontal, instead of horizontal upside down, and instead of just upside down with its feet stretched up and its head on the ground, for from the upside-down position he made this shape by stretching out the feet and resting the head on the ground. And in the case of the soul standing opposition comes first, horizontal life comes next, and the third is the reaching over matter, the placing in generation, and the harnessing of the divine to the godless, while last comes the unbearable tyranny of the foolish.Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus, Book 5 (Volume 6), trans. Tarrant, 343.20-344.15
Regardless of whether one considers plants to be above purely appetitive or not (viral life may actually be a better example of the purely appetitive), the general hierarchy of life is to first consider the purely appetitive, then the appetitive + spirited, and finally the life that it is possible to interweave the rational onto (which, 324.20-25, seems to include some animals other than homo sapiens). However, regarding the part that gets grafted/woven onto the mortal coil, each soul is itself composed of the part that’s steady and rooted in the Gods and truly able to know things in addition to another part that is unsteady and subject to entropy. It’s this latter part that can turn the soul topsy-turvy and make it root down in matter as opposed to the Gods.
This got me thinking about all of those myths in which the Gods turn people into plants, each for a variety of reasons — a mortal dies and their body becomes this plant in memorial, or in the case of women like Daphne, they are running from a pursuing God. The dying and the running could, in a Platonic sense, likely be construed as that unsteady part of the soul driving down into matter, rooting the soul in an inverted way; the love of the God is ler overflowing goodness and providence:
Things that are immortal in themselves resemble springs of water, those that are ever being filled from the first resemble the “ever-flowing rivers,” while those that are brought to life at one moment and lose their life at another resemble rivers that dry out. Everywhere that which is fuller of life desires to fill, and it too hastens to bring forth.Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus, Book 5, 242.30-243.2, trans. Tarrant
Myths and analogies try to describe this overflowing goodness, and ultimately the seeds of these myths are ingested by poets (virtuous, corrupted, and in-between) whose command of the material may, in fact, mirror that upright, sideways, or inverted state of the soul itself; the poets with their heads in matter are often the ones who write (give birth to, grow) the most scandalous stories that the masses love the most for their shock value. At the core, though, is that overflowing providence, which does not stop.
An important thing about these transformations is that the plant is still sacred to the God for whom the soul is beloved; since each of us is sown into the herd of a specific God and are sacred to and filled with the providential love of said God regardless of whether or not we are aware of this, the plant cannot not be beloved. I wonder if the case of a death, like Hermes mourning for Krokos (where saffron comes from; he was killed in an accident), the death is a symbol of the soul succumbing to matter and not to being released from the body.
The Daphne myth, which I have discussed before on this blog, is more complicated because Daphne flees from Apollon and another God — either Gê or the river who is her father — is the one who grants her request to become the laurel. This also yields well to exegesis, as rivers lead into generation and Gê holds the centerpoint foundation of worlds that burst with life. She is running into generation and into materiality; she becomes sacred and a sown symbol of Apollon despite that because the Gods are everywhere. As Sallust said, myths can be evaluated on multiple levels. Due to its surface-level content, this is definitely an example of a myth that would be restricted from the masses in Plato’s Kallipolis.
Minds are root systems, and depending on where they think they will find nourishment, they will grow — either rooting up in the citadel of sky or down in stone or attempting to find an in-between place.
6 thoughts on “Heads Become (OK, Are) Roots”
I love your way of teasing apart myths and meanings and metaphors. I know that these philosophical commentaries are pretty dense stuff.
What was actually really funny to me is that I saw the title of this post a while ago but didn’t read it yet. But then I was reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Poet” and read this line:
“[…] when Plato calls the world an animal, and Timæus affirms that the plants are also animals; or affirms a man to be a heavenly tree, growing with his root, which is his head, upward”
I had a sort of “!!!” moment, thinking about your post. I love these random, coincidental connections between completely unconnected aspects of my life. It was fun and unexpected
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I appreciate the compliment. 😁
Thank you for mentioning the Emerson essay, which I haven’t read! I may have to take a look because I’ve been working through some thoughts about hieropoeia, and I’m curious to learn about the context of that quotation.
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It kind of came about in talk of a poet’s ability to connect the broad world of nature into the interior world of the thoughts of men. I would recommend his essays though; I’ve been pleasantly surprised thinking through some of the theology he lays out.
I’ve actually not heard the term “hieropoeia” before (and google yielded no results), do you mind explaining what you mean by that? Thanks!
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I define it here: https://www.academia.edu/43650017/_Dancing_with_Khronos_Polytheism_in_Speculative_Fiction_Walking_the_Worlds_5_2_2019_p_35_48
but I’m trying to refine things now that I’ve had a bunch of ideas while reading Proclus over the past year and a half.
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Congrats on finishing the Timaeus commentary!!
(More on the actual substance of the post, perhaps, when I’ve had some more time to ponder it.)
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Thank you! The part about the World Soul was so difficult with the ratio stuff that I was feeling a huge lack of confidence and I’m really thrilled/surprised that I finished reading before the end of the calendar year. The last two volumes in the blue translation went by so fast and were a huge pleasure to read.
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