Proclus (c. AD 411–85)
Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 29, 2023, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/proclus-c-ad-411-85/v-1
The Greek Neoplatonist Proclus aimed to find a logical and metaphysical structure in which unity embraces but does not stifle diversity. He assumed the underlying unity of reality and of self, but was anxious to maintain the diversity of thought and existence. This led him to conceive of things as different species of one general whole, each part comprehending the rest but in its own specific, limited way. There are successive levels of awareness, thought and existence, ranging from that of ordinary experience, where we continuously have a passing understanding of the equally fleeting world, to that of ultimate unity, where we see the first principles and the total whole unqualified, as if by super-intuition. Reason, aided by imagination, and exercised by philosophy and science, elevates us towards that supreme state, which is at once the foundation of religious and of ethical values.
Proclus was interested in an integrated account of the nature of things. Asking questions about how and what we know, our perceptions and beliefs, prompts questions of the sort: what is the origin of knowledge? What is the nature of mind? Of the things we think and perceive? Of existence? For Proclus even questions about virtue, moral judgment and action, God, faith and salvation are all clarified by referring them to questions about their origins and nature. No subject escaped his attention, including the interpretation of poetic works by literary figures such as Homer, where Proclus saw language as a mediator to deeper truths. Philosophical inquiry leads to asking what order of reality substantiates things, whether in the field of mind, values, science or literature.
Proclus’ system is complex, and he uses highly technical terms (most of which have their roots in Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus). But for him this is only appropriate to the richness of our conceptual world. We have complex and varied concepts about our surroundings and selves, not because humans necessarily have flamboyant fancies but because reality itself is complex. That we have glimpses of knowledge means that there is some unity between our mind and the objects of thought. Moreover, unity is essential to the identity of things, and without it they would be unintelligible, and conceptually unreal. The ‘One’ is a primitive absolute, and is fundamental to intelligibility and existence. Thinker, thoughts and realities are in some way one. Things are not disconnected but share layers of ever-increasing unity. Consequently questions about different kinds of being, knowledge, good, and so on, become questions about degrees.
Studying all this was not just a cerebral affair. To the Neoplatonist, understanding the scheme of things provided a guide on leading a good life and achieving what since Plato’s days had been praised as the goal of human endeavour, ‘true happiness’ or eudaimonia.
Siorvanes, Lucas. Proclus (c. AD 411–85), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A096-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/proclus-c-ad-411-85/v-1.
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