Windows Can Be Mirrors

Last night, I came across a paper by Edward Watts, “The Lycians are coming: The career of Patricius, the father of Proclus,” in Proclus and His Legacy. As someone who always loves personal and interpersonal anecdotes in commentaries, and who absolutely loved Damascius’ Life of Isidore/Philosophical History fragments, I clicked on it, and I started reading.

The paper is not something that I can summarize; as it’s Open Access, anyone can read it. Rather, I want to pull out a passage from close to the end that felt very relatable, like seeing one’s own reflection in the window of a building when one hadn’t expected the lighting conditions to do that:

So what, ultimately, does this tell us about the mature Proclus? There are a couple of ways in which this early experience can be helpful when considering Proclus’ later career. First, we must remember that Proclus’ family may have been pagan refugees forced to flee the capital when he was quite young. One of Proclus’ great failings as head of the Athenian school was his inability to work effectively with Christian authorities. He never mentions his father in any of his own writings, but the fact that Patricius’ career in the capital may have ended abruptly because of a shift in imperial religious policies could not help but influence this attitude. It also likely helps to explain Proclus’ apparent hostility towards the idea of teaching Christian students and his apparent embrace of an eternalist philosophical position that, for some Christians, embodied a fundamental problem with Platonic teaching. To use modern parlance, the religious intolerance that forced Proclus’ family from the capital when he was a young child may have ultimately radicalized the philosopher.

p. 142, towards the bottom of the PDF

I see myself quite strongly in the last sentence of this paragraph. While neither of my parents was fired for religion ever, in recent blog posts especially, I hope I’ve communicated some of the weight hanging over the American pagan movements of the 1990s and 2000s, environments of religious discrimination that people living in more liberal states perhaps couldn’t fathom. It would be even worse were we not protected by the First Amendment, although the burden is on the person who is fired to prove it was for religious reasons. Proclus’ family lived in an extreme situation in which religious minorities were literally being purged due to a lack of protections and laws that demanded their conversion to stay employed. The hard line the Athenian School nurtured is partly responsible for the intellectual crackdown in 529 that closed it — it was not accommodating — but could it have been any other way, really, while keeping its integrity?

My childhood experience of being outed and the ways I was treated by the town we lived in set a tone for the way I engage with Christians as an adult. One of the deepest friendship wounds I’ve ever experienced was my college best friend saying that at least she cared about her salvation, implying that our mutual respect as friends had been a lie the entire time. The ways that the word pagan is used in the media, often to talk about the moral failings of politicians like the former President, or to justify Christian imperialism of “backward” places, adds to the million cuts that I’ve experienced ever since my family left Christianity when I was a child. While I was bullied a lot in school, the intensity ramped up immensely once it was known I wasn’t Christian. Christian teachers believed I was culpable because I was obviously going to pagan orgies. The short story I posted on my writing blog is a way of working through some of that, although I separated myself from the work by giving the character a different personality and a different set of things she did and that happened to her. Importantly, I barely met any tolerant Christians until college. The ones who were nicer in my childhood and teens were almost all extended family members from more liberal states back East or nominally Christian individuals at the mostly-post-Christian UU.

As an adult, I do not give to Christian charities. I am outspoken about the role Christianity has had in colonialism, and I acknowledge historical Christianity as a main driver of cultural destruction. It added its exterminationist doctrines to the already-terrible behaviors that all colonialism has, regardless of era, to turn a bad situation into an explosively destructive one. Today, this is limited to the more conservative forms of Christianity, like evangelical sects, but the more tolerant liberal Christians will often still support problematic charities in fundraisers, and they avoid culpability for their coreligionists’ behavior by saying they’re Not Real Christians. Rarely do they ever speak out in a big way against harm, although that is changing now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned and more Christians are being forced to confront hard truths about their religious history. (The withholding of water from tsunami refugees unless they converted in 2004 is just one example of these abuses of Christian charities’ power.) I believe that the ancients who foretold calamity when the temples were shut and the statues smashed and our relationship to the natural world cut down and the nymphs’ groves cut down were absolutely correct. If you don’t believe me about what the ancients warned against, then look at the weather news and the severity of the climate crisis. Non-Christians were very active in early climate crisis activism, and that’s being erased by Christians who are claiming they can bring a “faith-based approach” to climate activism as if the rest of us, ranging from pagan NRMs to indigenous religions, didn’t already have “faith-based approaches” and haven’t already been in the space for a long, long time.

This, too, impacts my perspective on Platonism (or, “Platonizing,” as I like to say, as I’m not formally trained in it). In The Soul’s Inner Statues, I wrote that engagement with the Platonic system without honoring its Gods and engaging on a theurgic level is appropriation, and furthermore, it breaks the system to warp it into an exclusivist monotheistic context. One can explain elements of the virtue system, how it accounts for evils, and many things without needing to know much about the Hellenic Gods, definitely. The nuance to the theurgic bit is that I think people can honor their own Gods, and there’s no need to “convert” or whatever word one might use here in order to do that theurgic work — I only mean this in the sense that we cannot add an overlay of Gaulish or Norse or Egyptian or Chinese or any other deities onto Platonism in a “find-replace” way. However, once we have some personal understanding and experiential knowledge of the Gods within a Platonic context, we can map the territory of other Gods we worship and know the “shape” of their manifestation along the ladder of hypostases, at least insofar as the Gods allow us to possess this intuitive knowledge. It ends up being a fusion and reception into one’s own context, a subschool with very particular characteristics depending on its cultural context. Some of this has happened historically, as is the case with many religions of the ancient Mediterranean — there are Egyptian, Chaldean, and other fusions with Platonism, both within the school itself and ones that draw on Platonism alongside other currents to do something different — and for people worshipping those Gods today, it makes this task less daunting.

Here are two examples of my personal contemporary “effort”/experience. I know based on prayer that Eir is highly active encosmically. I know that Belesama’s activity begins in a place similar to the position of Aletheia in the Aletheia-Apollon-Helios triad and that she extends her activity down to the weaving together of Soul, Form, and Matter to produce the natural world around us. She doesn’t replace the Hellenic Goddess, although she could be Aletheia in another guise for all I know as a mortal, and this knowledge is additive. It is possible that the strongest need to have a deep understanding of the Gods within Platonism would be with the initial generations of people working within that system and syncretizing it to their own deities’ contexts, that later generations of a Gaulish or Norse or other kind of Platonic framework would not need to know this so heavily if they were theologically and philosophically Platonic unless they wanted to do advanced study or teach. It becomes, in that sense, a bit like Olympiodorus flagging things for his Christian audience so they understand the context, with the exception that polytheist-to-polytheist interactions do not require coyness about the existence of the Gods, the word “daimon” (which he has to replace with other words for his Christian audience), and so on.

Even knowing this perspective, I don’t consider my reaction to events in my own childhood a bad thing or as a failure, so I do not judge Proclus for this at all in the way that scholars might. I consider my own experiences to have created hard boundaries in my adult life, and the boundaries are what they are. It is usually the case that people angry about someone’s boundaries will view them as a moral failing or a lack of “getting over it,” as if the accuser cannot go somewhere else and receive the validation they require. We’re not going to get along with everyone. For my part, this is a big driver behind my decision to rarely discuss or engage with Christianity at all and to focus on the positive things I can do within the modern polytheistic NRM space. This isn’t a space for them, ergo I’m not going to devote much mental activity to arguing with them or engaging with their texts or catering to their feelings. (Exactly three of my blog posts are tagged with “Christianity” out of hundreds.) History happens, and shit happens, and we each choose what we believe is the most just path based on our experiences and self-examination.

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