Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.06.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.06.26

Radek Chlup, Proclus: An Introduction.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xvi, 328.  ISBN 9780521761482.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Sara Ahbel-Rappe, University of Michigan (


Radek Chlup offers us a welcome look at the thought of Proclus, an author who, despite his enormous influence and stature, is still largely unfamiliar to all but devoted students of Neoplatonism. A first chapter gives a panoramic view of the philosophical landscape surrounding Proclus: the history of Platonism, the metaphysics of Plotinus, the infusion of ritual (known as theurgy), and some of the key actors in late antique Neoplatonism, including Iamblichus, Hypatia, and Proclus himself. In Chapter two, Chlup sketches the heart of the Proclean system: the One, constantly funding the lesser realities, proceeding through the two valves that lend their pulse to all things: the apeiron, the unlimited that sheds its energies to as it were imply the next level of reality, and the peras, the limit that defines and stabilizes the identity of the intelligible worlds that function in turn as the fulcra, so to say, for ever lower reaches of reality, funneling their own cycles of procession and reversion into the order of souls. There are also different grades of participation, from the unparticipated first term, to the participated monad, which governs a series of successively- ranked members, to the participating terms, the extensions of these same multiplicities conceived as purely inhering within their subsequent orders. Reversion here means that these subsequent terms imitate, aspire toward, and find their highest activities in their prior causes, without thereby becoming their causes.

In Chapter three, Chlup introduces us to the Henads, the divine stations of unity that function in Proclus’ system as gods. The word “Henad” obviously derives from the word for One, and it denotes a unity that converges with the highest reality, the One, conceived as the Good, as bestower of all reality upon lesser realities. Conceptually, the Henad is a bit of a paradox: each Henad possesses a unique character, but it coincides nevertheless with the entirety of the henadic realm. Thus we might compare Proclus’ Henads and their distinctive natures to other so-called kataphatic theologies, as for example the names of Allah in the Islamic tradition or the divine Sephirot in the Jewish tradition. For each of these theologies, God is e.g. just, merciful, the king, the creator, etc., so that a given name refers to the entirety of the divine reality, but does so under a unique aspect that is nevertheless distinct from other such aspects. In a similar way, the Henads each convey tokens (sunthēmata) of a transcendent character to particulars who inhabit their orders, and they make the unity that characterizes the One as supreme cause available to all forms of multiplicity. Chlup veers into the realm of the speculative, suggesting that the Henads are something like divine individuals (116-17) and going beyond or possibly against the stipulations of what Proclus says in the Elements of Theology, where, for example, in Proposition 113 Proclus tells us that the gods have the character of unity, and in Proposition 126 that the higher a god is, the more universal it is. Chlup seems more accurate when he shows how the conventionally-recognized gods that populate the pagan world of late antiquity are now incorporated into a sprawling spiritual network. These two disparate channels through which Proclus describes the flow of actuality, that is, the unifying function of the divine Henads versus the more distributive causal order of Intellect and Soul, might be likened to veins and arteries, or the blood and lymph systems, of the sacred body that constitutes the world. Chlup quotes from Proclus’ Chaldaean Philosophy (fr. 5.5-8 des Places), where Proclus tells us that:

The soul consists both of holy reason-principles and of divine symbols. The former have their origin in the intellective forms, the latter in the divine Henads. And we are images of the intellective essences, but statues of the unknown sunthemata.

Chapter four, on epistemology, discusses the processes associated with discursive thinking: the soul’s mentation is a temporal flow of discreet thought-moments, each of which is comprised by a focal point that partially grasps an essence. This momentary grasp is known as a probolē, a “projection” of the soul’s thought. The soul creates a discursive nexus that unpacks, we might say, the contents of the forms, whose copies these conceptual tokens actually are. There is also a higher form of awareness, non-discursive, that the soul temporarily achieves through a more unified form of noēsis.

Chapter five now takes this same approach and looks at what the human soul can accomplish by way of uniting with the One, conceived as the seat of the Henads, or divine attributes. The center of this chapter is the Neoplatonic idea of theurgy (literally, “divine-working” and denoting sacred ritual). It turns out that the soul does retain some trace of its original spiritual ancestor, the One, a trace that Proclus calls the One in us. This faculty of the soul, the renowned flower of the soul (associated with the language of the Chaldean Oracles) allows it to experience a restoration of its total conscious nature, through a kind of surrendering or loss of its individual identity. Chlup quotes Proclus on how to attain such a union (Chaldaean Philosophy fr. 2.17 ff. des Places):

Let us ascend to the true aim, which is assimilation to him. Let us recognize our Lord, let us feel love for the Father. Let us run toward the warmth escaping from the cold.

These images of love, self-annihilation, and sacrificial fire—all correspond to what has been called in other traditions, the path of devotion, what in Sanskrit, for example, is known as Bhakti Yoga, divine union based on love.

Chapter six focuses on the concept of sumbolon, here used as a literary term that has its roots in theurgic contexts. The sumbolon, the token, is different from the modernist term, symbol, insofar as the former works by synecdoche—the reference is to the fragmentation of a shard, whose meaning can be reconstructed from the literal piecing together of the fragments, or tokens (sumbola). The sumbolon functions not only within a literary work to signify a meaning beyond the obvious sense and often contrary to the surface purport of the passage, but operates as the soul’s entry into modes of intelligence that are, ordinarily, beyond its reach.

Chapter seven, on evil, asks questions that plague all Neoplatonists who emphasize the priority of the Intelligible world. What good, after all, is the material order? Further, if the cosmos as a whole can be explained as theophanic disclosure, revealing the sanctity of all beings as emblems of the divine, then how would evil come about? Part of Chlup’s work in this chapter is to draw a sharp contrast with Plotinus. Both thinkers understand the material order as the necessary consequence of the One’s perfection, the farthest reach of the real. Nevertheless Plotinus uses a much more dualistic vocabulary when talking about matter, calling it, as Chlup documents, “pure lack; supreme evil.” By contrast, Proclus is inclined to emphasize the Aristotelian conception of matter as a potentiality and so the complement of actuality. In general, for Proclus, evil is the failure of a term to revert to its cause.

Chapter eight centers on the concept of virtue, first as a curricular item within Neoplatonic scholasticism and then as a valuation of the contemplative life. Much of the material is taken from Marinus’ Life of Proclus, and at times Chlup will attribute views to Proclus that are only found within the Life, which, on the other hand, Chlup understands as a hagiography. Marinus makes Proclus exemplary for the Neoplatonist tradition, embodying a contemplative orientation to life that also imitates divine providence through beneficial action in the world.

Chapter nine situates the religious side of Proclus’ thought in the world of late antiquity, including the legal status of polytheistic practice and cult, and ideological resistance to Christianity on the part of polytheist holdouts. The chapter is ambitious, touching on everything from the origins of Greek morality in a shame-culture to the practice of animal sacrifice in theurgy. Chlup argues for the social embeddedness of Neoplatonism and spends a fair amount of time in the last chapter generalizing about such phenomena as “equal access to the gods”, “holymen” or what Chlup calls “friends of god”. There is an epilogue that discusses the influence of Proclus on Christian mystics, Arab philosophers, and German Romantics.

In all of this, Chlup succeeds by guiding us with a compass of key traditional concepts, but also by charting new Proclean terrain via points of distance from or proximity to Plotinus’ landmarks. As a result of this method, I believe that Chlup succeeds in crafting an extraordinary image of Proclus’ visionary world, densely populated with various ranks of intelligent beings—gods, daemons, humans—cascading from a center (the One) that is itself effulgent with a plethora of divine personae, each governing a vast retinue of beings. Among the strongest features of the book are the diagrams that Chlup constructs to illustrate the richness and complexity of a world that might be thought of as an implosion of light. Paradoxically Chlup characterizes Proclus’ cosmos as a closed system, fueled by a pulsing energy that channels itself through a series of ever less capacious receivers. Everything remains fixed within its ontological assignation, particularly the human soul. Proclus’ metaphysics of Being, though it formalizes the model of procession employed by Plotinus, rather emphasizes a hierarchical world: the soul visits, as it were, its source in the One. It catches a glimpse of that ultimate principle but accepts its lower place in the cosmic chain. The system encompasses, in a beneficent structure, a sacred cosmos that reveals its divine cause. As Chlup shows, cause and effect are separate: this is owing to the fundamental causal principle that runs through the entire structure, that the cause is necessarily greater than the effect. By contrast, Plotinus’ metaphysics opens the door for the soul to the center, the One, through its emphasis on the affinities between Intellect and the One, and through its insistence on the simultaneous capacity of the soul to inhabit the individual body and remain a resident of the intelligible world. Chlup’s book is refreshing in that it appreciates the cultural milieu in which Proclus worked as the scholarch of a famous polytheist institution, during the time when Athens’ gods were scarcely holding their ground, when philosophy was the object of invidious censorship, and the elite, learned families who comprised its remaining ranks were increasingly desperate. But on a somewhat more critical note, Chlup’s insistence that what he calls a “worldview” (pp. 6-7 and Chapter 9 passim) ultimately trumps metaphysics as a determination of philosophical direction, makes him perhaps less curious about exactly how and why, from a philosophical viewpoint, Proclus generates these complex causal mechanisms. The philosophical lineage of Proclus, especially his intuitions about causes, is left largely unexplored in Chlup’s work. Recent work on Syrianus’ metaphysics and the extent to which Syrianus’ conception of metaphysics was shaped by the Aristotelian project of the science of Being, might have come into play in this book to good effect. Chlup points out how Proclus’ great edifice of fixed being differs from Plotinus’ more fluid world. Proclus apparently reverses the priority of Intellect that Plotinus emphasizes and insists that Being is the first “product” of the henadic realm. I wonder, then, why Being looms so large in a Neoplatonist philosopher, when the One is of course beyond Being. Admittedly, these questions are my own and they are simply not the questions Chlup asks. It is just that I worry that the one assumption of the book that is less traditional, insofar as it does not follow on the conceptual framework employed by Neoplatonists themselves, is possibly prejudicial in its own way, and this is what Chlup calls “the worldview” of Proclus. Possibly this conception shapes the narrative in ways that not all students of philosophy will appreciate.

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