The Path to the Summit

I wish to communicate something exciting that has its origins in a conversation with a few people about the Platonic Theology (in which I learned that @barefootwisdom has memorized a lot of Proclus’ hymns) and the way that the soul experiences ascent. After that conversation, I went back to the commentary and translations of Proclus’ hymns from R.M. van den Berg to double-check that he had not worked through what we intuited in our conversation.

The hymn under discussion is the Hymn to the Mother of the Gods, Hekate, and Janus, and the section of the Platonic Theology during which the hymn came up was the first chunk of Book V, where significant emphasis is given to the Kingly Triad of Kronos, Rhea, and Zeus. Kronos is the God who is abiding, in the nigh-inaccessible place that gazes upward, as the first intellectual God is the most intelligible-like of them. Van den Berg’s discussion of the hymn, while he does occasionally mention the Platonic Theology, misses the practical dynamics of what the hymn is actually doing here.

The key to this is not only to look at the Statesman myth that is used in this section of the Platonic Theology, but also to consider the descent of the soul and its re-ascent in terms of the myth within the Phaedrus, where successful souls (usually taken to be immortals, although Iamblichus does also index this against partial souls to indicate different registers of success we experience keeping up with the divine even though we all get embodied in his De Anima) that do not fall go — through their own effort, following the leader-Gods — to gaze at the bright heights and the unspeakably pure sacred things visible from the summit. Our souls, descended in generation, have a huge climb to take. Van den Berg emphasizes, both in the commentary on the hymn and in an earlier section on the leader-Gods in the hymns, on ascending to the level of Nous through the mythic structures and deities who are appealed to within the hymn.

This is one case where applied theurgic knowledge, AKA what actual Platonizing polytheists do in ritual, comes out ahead because there is something deeper than that going on in the hymn, and it is only through praying to one’s leader-God (or presumed leader-God, as many of us are still figuring that out) that this becomes apparent. Both Hekate and Zeus-Janus in the hymns are being propitiated as intermediaries. Van den Berg picks up on Hekate’s role and says some very apt things about “porch-dwelling Hekate” and the symbolic role that porches and thresholds have in Neoplatonic language, as they indicate a slightly more relatable manifestation of the God outside of the house/inner sanctum. However, Zeus-Janus is also in this hymn, the God who looks forward and back who originated in the Religio Romana fused together with the Demiurge. This hymn, due to how Zeus is also addressed in that threshold way, isn’t about rising to Zeus, and van den Berg is perhaps biased by how Zeus is often discussed in scholarship — while Zeus is important, he’s not the only God. Let’s look at what is said in the Phaedrus for a moment.

But when the souls we call immortals reach the top, they move outward and take their stand on the high ridge of heaven, where its circular motion carries them [247C] around as they stand while they gaze upon what is outside heaven.

The place beyond heaven — none of our earthly poets has ever sung or ever will sing its praises enough! Still, this is the way it is — risky as it may be, you see, I must attempt to speak the truth, especially since the truth is my subject. What is in this place is without color and without shape and without solidity, a being that really is what it is, the subject of all true knowledge, visible only to intelligence, the soul’s steersman. Now a god’s mind is nourished by intelligence [247D] and pure knowledge, as is the mind of any soul that is concerned to take in what is appropriate to it, and so it is delighted at last to be seeing what is real and watching what is true, feeding on all this and feeling wonderful, until the circular motion brings it around to where it started. On the way around it has a view of Justice as it is; it has a view of Self-control; it has a view of Knowledge — not the knowledge that is close to change, that becomes different as it knows [247E] the different things which we consider real down here. No, it is the knowledge of what really is what it is. And when the soul has seen all the things that are as they are and feasted on them, it sinks back inside heaven and goes home. On its arrival, the charioteer stables the horses by the manger, throws in ambrosia, and gives them nectar to drink besides.

Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff

Now, this passage is indexed against things happening in the Platonic Theology at multiple levels, not just at the “cosmic circuit going up” level, and hence it’s also relevant here. Here’s a passage from the Platonic Theology, Book 5, Chapter 8:

For because indeed he is intelligible in intellectuals, he nourishes souls, and souls are called the nurselings of Saturn. But because he does not fill them with first, and unical intelligibles, but with those that are multiplied by his own cause of separation, he is said to feed them distributedly, and as it were in a divided manner. And do you not see how through these things, this God appears to be coordinate to the first triad of the intelligible and intellectual Gods? For as Socrates, in the Phædrus, says, that souls are nourished in the supercelestial place, and in the intelligible meadow, so the Elean guest asserts that the souls that are fed under Saturn, are filled with intelligible goods. And it is not at all wonderful if souls are perfected by both these; intellectually indeed, under the kingdom of Saturn; but intelligibly under the order of the first intellectual Gods. For this God himself is nourished by that order. And on this account he is allotted a leading and primary transcendency in intellectuals, because they are filled from that order [through him] with occult and unapparent powers. And he is that among the intellectual fathers, which the order of the first intellectual Gods is in the intelligible and at the same time intellectual orders. Hence the intelligible every where becomes nutriment to ascending souls, but the connexion with it is effected through the second and third Gods.

p. 317-318, Chapter 8, Book V, 28.24-29.22-8.

Functionally, Zeus’ role in this triad of Kronos, Rhea, and Zeus, and his role as the Demiurge, must be indexed against what is said in the Orphic stories about him swallowing all that has come before to rebirth it. Zeus is the fulcrum, the bottleneck point ⧖ through which all must go to reach the summit. We, who are each bound to our leader-God and following them, are ultimately following (or attempting to follow) Zeus through them, and our experience of this bottleneck will be “flavored” according to that uniqueness that we inherit from our predecessors. Zeus, in turn, passes us to Rhea, who can bring us further into the abode of her husband, Kronos, who abides in purity at the summit beyond Zeus’ watchtower. Kronos is pure, an intellectual God closest to the intelligible, the dazzling and unapproachable God who is characterized by that “running backwards” myth of the Statesman. This dynamic is similar to how, in the myth of Zeus’ establishment of his rule, she functions as the mediator between Kronos and Zeus, facilitating the transfer of power between them. It is she who orchestrates that ultimate contact. 🤯 Proclus walks us through this in somewhat guarded language within both the hymn and in the Platonic Theology. Indeed, at one point in the Theology, he writes:

Hence also, the theurgic art imitating the unapparent periods of souls, arranges initiations in the mysteries of the second Gods, prior to the more sublime mysteries. And through these, it causes us to pass to the intelligible place of survey.

p. 318, Chapter 8, Book V, 30.4-8.

The hymn invokes these Gods, and it refers to the path outlined in these mysteries — the ways of ascending to the summit, the way of viewing Truth, Justice, Beauty, and Wisdom as much as any of us can view it.

This is remarkable, and it is beautiful, and it brings a new relevance and powers to the theurgic rites that we each do in our daily lives, both the quotidian ones and the ones aimed at transcendence. It’s also been on my to-do list to jot down these thoughts from that conversation, along with the results of the subsequent solo investigation, in public because I know others can benefit from this, and things are about to get hectic at work because the fall semester is always a bit of a whirlwind.

Have a wonderful August, everyone.

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