Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.05.21

Alain Lernould, Physique et Théologie. Lecture du Timée de Plato par Proclus.   Villeneuve d'Ascq:  Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2001.  Pp. 405.  ISBN 2-85939-644-6.  EUR 28.97.  

Reviewed by Sara Rappe, University of Michigan (
Word count: 1952 words

Among the Renaissance pavement illustrations in the 14th century Cathedral at Siena is the famous portrait of Hermes Trismegestus with the caption, contemporaneus Mosei, ("Contemporary of Moses"). The circle of Cosimo de Medici believed that Moses and Plato learned cosmology from the same source, in Egypt, instructed by none other than Hermes.1 How else could one explain the similarities in Plato's account of the world's creation through the will of the Demiurge, and the biblical account of Genesis? Plato's Timaeus is one of the West's most influential texts, sparking centuries of conversations across cultural and temporal divides. And yet cosmology for the Greeks themselves as for us today was not only an objective science but was fraught with ideological and religious contention, even in polytheistic circles.

We have an unparalleled opportunity to glimpse the cosmological debates of late antiquity in the one surviving Neoplatonist commentary on Plato's Timaeus, that of Proclus the Diadochus, the fifth century scholarch of the Platonist academy in Athens. This work documents centuries of an interpretive tradition that no doubt began as soon as the Timaeus was written. Proclus refers back to the lost commentaries of a number of predecessors, including the Academic Crantor, the Middle Platonist Plutarch, and the Neoplatonists Iamblichus and Syrianus, the latter Proclus' own teacher.

For reasons of historical interest alone, then, one might wish to know more about Proclus' In Timaeum (IT). Lernould (L.), in undertaking this detailed study of books I and II of Proclus' IT, adds appreciably to the growing scholarly interest not just in Proclus, but in the Platonic commentator tradition more generally.2 But because L. uses the French translation of Festugière,3 he in effect gives us a commentary, not on the original Greek text, but on Festugière. This, in my opinion, was an unfortunate choice. His book would have been more compelling if L. had referred us consistently to the Greek text of Diehl. But to return to the IT and especially the portions L. chooses to study. The proemium, or Timaeus 27d6-29d5, forms the basis for Proclus' discussion in book one and the greater part of L.'s own commentary.

It may be helpful to remind the reader about the import of these lines. After a prayer that seeks divine guidance for the ensuing cosmology, Timaeus asks the central cosmological question, one, it seems, that we are still compelled to ask: has the world "always been in existence, having no principle of coming to be, or did it arise, taking its origin from some beginning?" (28b5-7). Timaeus answers his own question in the next line: It came into existence, he says, γέγονεν (b7). But this use of the word γέγονεν at 28b7 is actually problematic for the Platonists, since the orthodox Neoplatonist position held that the world did not originate temporally.4 How does Proclus get around this difficulty? L. elaborates Proclus' solutions in chapters 7 and 13. Before turning in detail to these chapters, let us note the overall organization of IT books I and II according to L.

Proclus delineates this portion of the text in terms of three axiomata or hypotheses, followed by what he calls demonstrations. "Plato proceeds more geometrico when he assumes definitions and hypotheses owing to which he completes his demonstrations" (IT I, 236.15, cf.258.12; 272.10-14). As L. summarizes, "the structure of [Plato's] geometric reasoning is reflected particularly in the 'Preface' (i.e., the proemium.)" (p. 109). Proclus refers to Timaeus as a Pythagorean (IT I, 1.25-27), by which he means that there is also a theological import to these demonstrations. According to his own account, Proclus practiced a theological "method by means of images," which proceeded from the effect to the first causes (Platonic Theology, I 4, 19.6). L. attempts to explicate the methodological philosophy behind Proclus' voluminous exegesis of the Timaeus in just these terms.5

According to L. Proclus reads the Timaeus in terms of a systematic history of physical investigation, somewhat akin to Aristotle or perhaps even Hegel: history begins with a materialist analysis (the Presocratics) but then progresses to the formal cause (Aristotelian science), and culminates in dialectic, which embraces the Platonic/Pythagorean study of true causes -- efficient, final, and exemplary (L. p. 105). The Timaeus for Proclus is grounded in intellectual intuitions or non-discursive truths, but is expressed as a scientific discourse. Nevertheless, the goal of the text is not pedagogy but anagogy (to transliterate one of Proclus' favorite ideas). Plato, again according to Proclus, wants to lead the soul back to the first principles of reality through giving the soul an understanding of the nature of the universe.

Much of Proclus's commentary is devoted to this doxographical tradition. Taking up the main issue (eternal or not?) first, L. shows that for Proclus the question at hand was not a straightforward one -- is the world generated or is it ungenerated (and therefore eternal)? Rather, Proclus' predecessors grappled mightily with the import of the seemingly transparent γέγονεν. For example the prayer at 27c5, γέγονεν καὶ ἀγενές ἐστιν, or in what way [the world] is generated and yet also eternal, is still a matter of dispute when it comes to modern translations. The ancients actually wondered whether to take one or the other or both η ... η as the adverb or the conjunction. On this particular lemma, Proclus cites Alcinous/Albinus, some anonymous Platonists, and Porphyry and Iamblichus, the last of whom agree with Proclus.6

Being generated, it turns out, is a complex affair. In fact Neoplatonists kept lists of exegetical solutions to the contradictions of Plato's text, which on the face of it suggested that the world did begin from a certain point in time.7 An earlier, more strictly Platonic explanation of the text assumes that by generated Plato must mean composite. Or again, the world could be generated in the sense that it was dependent on a higher, external cause. Or, once more, one could distinguish between eternity and sempeternity (or indefinite duration as opposed to unchanging existence).

The upshot is confusing: the reading of Proclus must be understood in light of Neoplatonist metaphysics. In the first "demonstration" (L. chapter 13) Proclus confronts his predecessors in order to put his own thesis into relief and establishes just such a list of possible meanings for the word γενητός (IT I.279-280, here translated literally from L.):

1) That which has a beginning in time;

2) That which proceeds from another which is its cause;

3) That which is inherently composite;

4) That whose nature is generated, though it is itself not actually generated.

We don't have space to elaborate the entire doxography and assign each interpretation a source here. Rather, we turn to interpretation number 4, that of Proclus. What Proclus says is that the essence of the world is generated, and yet the world is not actually generated in time, since it undergoes "coming to be in the whole of time." Are you getting confused yet? In order to explicate this idea, we must turn to the logic of Proclus' exposition.

L. quotes the relevant passage from IT: "the world is, like the soul, intermediary between the beings that become and eternal beings." Thus the cosmos is τὸ ἀεὶ γιγνόμενον, that whose being consists in always coming to be. So far, so good. In Proclus' world of hierarchical entities, beings are strictly ranked in the categories of eternal, temporal, and something in between. And yet what exactly is this in between? Here Proclus suggests that the activity of an entity can be temporal while its substance is eternal. So, soul is eternal, but its activities are expressed in time. And the world, too, is something like soul.

Of course the world is not exactly like soul since the latter is incorporeal. As Proclus goes on to tell us, the world is "in virtue of its body, wholly becoming, and yet Plato bestows on it another aspect, its quality of being not originated, since the world is also a god" (L. quoting Proclus, IT I 276). This conclusion appears to disrupt the logic of Proclus' analogy with the soul. How can the universe be an intermediary between being and becoming like the soul, when the soul is an incorporeal reality, not subject to birth or death?

Proclus' solution lies, perhaps surprisingly, in his appropriation of Aristotelian metaphysical explanations. Aristotelians are wont to attack Plato's account of the creation in the Timaeus precisely because it apparently suggests that the world enjoys a beginning in time. We have seen that Platonists regularly dismiss these criticisms on the grounds that this implies a literal reading of Plato's text. On the other hand, Proclus does criticize Aristotle's metaphysical explanation for God, or the prime mover, as purely the final cause of all substance. For Proclus the Demiurge is the efficient cause of the world. Nevertheless, Proclus employs the Aristotelian category of final cause in connection with his IT.

In fact the ἀρχὴ γενέσεως that Plato's text is in search of is the final cause, the τέλος of becoming. In other words, the ἀρχή -- the beginning or initiation of the world's becoming -- is identical with its τέλος. Thus at every moment, or throughout time as a whole, the world is complete. As Proclus tells us, the universe "owing to its generation in the whole of time is always in the process of becoming, always beginning to be, and always in possession of its perfection" (IT 281.27-282.4). To put the matter perhaps more simply, the world's perfection consists in its imperfection, its constantly changing nature.

What the function of this constant becoming is in terms of Proclus' metaphysics, or for Neoplatonists more generally, is not a question that L. addresses. At any rate, for this reader, the question of how Plato's text is interpreted in these crucial lines is the most interesting issue investigated in L.'s book. But L. goes on to explore the remaining demonstrations that Proclus considers as components of the proemium, as well as the next section of Plato's text, in L.'s word, the Demiurgie. Readers will have to peruse this third section for themselves, since the readings are every bit as detailed as ones already described.

L.'s book touches on issues that are crucial to an understanding of Neoplatonist philosophy of science and Neoplatonist history of philosophy. One criticism I have is that L. seems rarely to consult other texts outside of the IT in order to illustrate Proclus' own interpretations. For example, chapter 13 would have been much clearer if L. had invoked the extensive references Proclus makes to axioms adumbrated in his Elements of Theology. As John Phillips tells us, "it is clearly Proclus' view that Plato in 28B is applying a precept stated in Proposition 29 of his Elements. . . . Intermediate between wholly eternal beings and wholly created beings there is necessarily a class of beings which are in one respect eternal but in another measured by time, i.e., they both exist always and come to be."8

For that matter, L. does not refer to the other important Proclean text on the world's eternity, the so-called 18 arguments on the eternity of the world, embedded in Philoponus' De aeternitate mundi contra Proclum.9 Nevertheless, L.'s work, though difficult, is clearly useful. Today we are perhaps too used to seeing the Aristotelian-Christian dialogue concerning the eternity of the world in late antiquity as the central cosmological conversation. L.'s work joins a small but growing body of other works that incisively show us how polytheistic philosophy of the fourth through sixth centuries had its own ideological axes to grind. It turns out that Pythagoras and the Chaldean oracles, not Moses or the New Testament, are the revelatory traditions to which Proclus and those of his school allude.


1.   Hence the dying Cosimo commissioned Ficino to translate the Hermetica before the Enneads, preferring to glean primordial wisdom from what he thought a much more ancient source. On the idea that Plato and Moses drank from the same fount of Egyptian wisdom, see Pelikan, What Does Athens Have to Do with Jerusalem? (Ann Arbor 1997). Pelikan discusses Jewish and Christian interpretations of Plato's Timaeus.
2.   Recent works on the Platonic commentaries include a new translation (by Harold Tarrant) of Olympiodorus' Prolegomena to the Study of Plato, as well as new critical edition of Damasicus' Commentary on the Parmenides. Proclus' In Timaeum is currently being translated into English by Harold Tarrant and Dirk Baltzly for a Brill series.
3.   Proclus. Commentaire sur le Timée, traduction et notes par A. Festugière (Paris 1966-68).
4.   For a summary of the history of Platonist interpretations of the Timaeus see Sorabji, Time, Space, and the Continum (Ithaca, 1983), pp. 268-73. Sorabji and Lernould are both indebted to Baltes, Die Weltentstehung des Platonischen Timaios nach den antiken Interpreten, 2 vols. (Leiden 1976).
5.   The following is a list of the hypotheses and demonstrations Proclus finds in the text: 276d6-28a1-4: True being is known by intellect accompanied by reason; that which becomes can be known by opinion accompanied by sensation. 28a4-6: Everything that comes to be, comes to be from a cause; whatever does not arise from a cause does not come to be. 28a6-b3: That whose model is eternal is necessarily beautiful; that whose model comes to be is not beautiful. 28b3-5: The name of the universe is Heaven or World. Demonstrations: 28b5-c2: The world comes to be in its essence according to time as a whole. 28c2-5: Nature of the Demiurge as efficient cause of the universe. The relationship of the Demiurge to Proclus' own "intelligible triad." 28c5-29b2: Distinction between Demiurge and Intellectual paradigm or Model. 29b2-d5: The verisimilitude of Plato's myth of the Demiurge.
6.   See J.M. Dillon, "Tampering with the Timaeus: ideological emendations in Plato, with special references to the Timaeus," American Journal of Philology 110, 50-72.
7.   For a discussion of these lists, see Sorabji 274 ff. and Phillips, "Neoplatonic Exegeses of Plato's Cosmogony (Timaeus 27c-28c)," Journal of the History of Philosophy 35:2 (April 1997), pp. 173-196.
8.   Phillips, art. cit., p. 177.
9.   See now the new translation of Lang and Macro of Proclus' eighteen questions, Proclus On the Eternity of the World (Berkeley, 2000).

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