Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.04.49 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.04.49

Stephen Gersh (ed.), Interpreting Proclus: From Antiquity to the Renaissance.   Cambridge, New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pp. ix, 409.  ISBN 9780521198493.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Lloyd Gerson, University of Toronto (


G. W. F. Hegel believed that Proclus was a more accurate expositor of Plato’s philosophy than was Plotinus because Plotinus was overly influenced by Arisotle whereas Proclus refused to place any other philosopher between himself and Plato. This assessment—still carrying considerable weight in Europe—is amusingly confirmed by the great historian of medieval philosophy, Étienne Gilson who, in his rather scurrilous Being and Some Philosophers, offered the following bit of historical and logical reasoning: if one embraces Plato’s philosophy, then one is inevitably led to Proclus; but since Proclus’ philosophy (especially his metaphysics) is absurd, we must reject Platonism. In its stead, we should set ourselves firmly in the camp of Aristotle and his most authentic disciple, Thomas Aquinas. Long before Hegel, Proclus was considered to be the great systematizer of the Platonic revelation. As a result, he was taken to be the gateway to Plato when Byzantine Christians, Arab Muslims, and Latin Christians sought to anchor their theologies in Greek philosophy. Far more than Plotinus (or anyone else for that matter), Proclus’ voluminous writings represented Platonism for scholars, theologians, and philosophers from the sixth century, more or less until Hegel himself, or more precisely, until Friedrich Schleiermacher in the early nineteenth century and the revival of a form of Platonic scholarship ‘purified’ of historical accretions.

Stephen Gersh’s Interpreting Proclus: From Antiquity to the Renaissance is an immensely learned compilation of studies of major (and some very minor) acts of appropriation or, to use Gersh’s own word, of the ‘assimilation’ of Procline Platonism. The table of contents appears at the end of this review. Gersh is himself the author of about one-third of the pieces. Given the relative obscurity of much of this material, the authors rightly devote considerable space to the basic task of listing manuscript traditions, the dating of various writings, along with their availability in translation and, most helpfully, a survey of exactly what from the voluminous Procline corpus was appropriated and by whom. Thus, if we divide the writings into those that are theological and those that are exegetical—as is done in Chapters 2 and 3 by Sheppard and Gersh—the reception of Proclus can be seen to vary according to his pagan, medieval Latin Christian, medieval Byzantine Christian, and Renaissance Christian readers. The first-mentioned group is given relatively scant attention, specifically, in a section of Gersh’s chapter on Damascius and Boethius. As a result, little notice is taken of the features of the so-called Athenian and Alexandrian schools of Platonism, the former including Proclus as its most illustrious member. Ilsetraut Hadot’s refutation of Karl Praechter’s thesis regarding the sharp distinction between these two schools seems to be generally accepted now. Nevertheless, there is probably a good deal of work yet to be done on how Proclus influenced both schools or, in the terminology of this book, how he was received.

The self-consciously pagan reception of Proclus lasts for less than one hundred years compared with a millennium and more of Christian appropriation, no doubt justifying the imbalance in treatments. From among all the Christian philosophers and theologians touched in one way or another by Proclus, another somewhat surprising omission is that of a separate chapter devoted to Thomas Aquinas, although he does make appearances in Steel’s chapter on the translations of William of Moerbeke, Thomas’ confrere, and in Porro’s chapter on the University of Paris in the thirteenth century. This admission can easily be defended on the grounds that Aquinas does not directly ‘receive’ Proclus at all. Those following Gilson would assert this emphatically as an incontestable truth. But given the very complicated and fascinating story of pagan and Christian encounters, it is worth sketching briefly what this volume ably reveals in stages through the various chapters of how the indirect reception of Proclus is very much a factor in Aquinas’ philosophy and theology.

As most working in ancient philosophy know, Proclus evidently had a Christian pupil who called himself ‘Dionysius the Areopagite’, that is, the pagan converted to Christianity by Paul. His works and Procline connections are clearly set forth in the chapter by Dillon. Roughly speaking, ‘Dionysius’ embedded Procline metaphysics into a Christian framework, that is, a theological framework based on scripture and on the theological tradition as it existed in the first five centuries of Christianity. That ‘Dionysius’ was not, in fact, a first-century Christian theologian who remarkably—one might say, miraculously—anticipated Proclus, but rather a disciple of his was not conclusively established until 1457 by Lorenzo Valla, confirmed some 50 years later by Erasmus. So, for almost a thousand years, Procline metaphysics basked in the glow of the authority of the man who was, supposedly, the first Christian theologian. Thus, this metaphysics (and, indirectly, much else) could be employed in medieval theological and philosophical constructs. Aquinas himself wrote a commentary on ‘Dionysius’ De divinis nominibus and elsewhere makes hundreds of references to this and other works of his. The fourteenth century Dominican Berthold of Moosburg wrote a voluminous and immensely learned commentary on Proclus’ On the Elements of Theology, the contents of which are surveyed in the illuminating chapter by Führer and Gersh. But it is doubtful that Berthold would have thrown himself so wholeheartedly into this project if he did not assume that Proclus was systematizing Dionysius, not the other way around. And Marsilio Ficino, who just might have been aware of Valla’s work, nevertheless translated into Latin Proclus’ main writings, not so much with the imprimatur of Dionysius in mind, but with the intention of showing the closeness of Proclus’ philosophy and theology with medieval Christian analogues. This is especially evident in Ficino’s own Platonic Theology which is, as Allen clearly shows, deeply indebted to Proclus’ own work by that name. By Hegel’s time, the tendency to see Proclus as a Christian manqué was long past, and Proclus’ credentials as a authentic disciple of Plato (and not Dionysius) could be re-established.

A somewhat different but equally fascinating story is told by D’Ancona regarding the Latin Liber de causis which is a translation of an Arabic work dating probably from the 9th century, purportedly first presented as a work of Aristotle, but by the time of Aquinas, well understood to be a compilation of sections of Proclus’ Elements of Theology. Aquinas probably thought the work genuine when he wrote his commentary on it, but subsequently, when he had William of Moerbeke’s translation of Proclus’ work, came to see its true origin. Nevertheless, Aquinas continued to make numerous positive and respectful references to it. The Arabic compilation is itself based in part on another compilation, the so-called Theology of Aristotle, which is a pastiche of passages from Plotinus’ Enneads. Most importantly, in the earlier compilation, a particular interpretation of Plotinus is advanced according to which the One of the first hypothesis of the second part of Plato’s Parmenides is explicated in a way that makes it ‘beyond being’ such that only with difficulty can it be identified with the Idea of the Good in Republic. That Proclus’ theological interpretation of Parmenides might be in fact different from that of Plotinus is something that has, generally, not been considered ever since the ground-breaking article of E. R. Dodds in 1928. In any case, as we know, the reception of Proclus dwarfed that of Plotinus, even though one might argue that the former depends very heavily on the latter. Thus, in a way, the entire Platonic tradition, especially the founder of that tradition, is held hostage to the interpretation of Plato advanced by Proclus, both when Proclus was being read as at least a fellow-traveler of Christians and when, being freed of this notion, he was seen, especially by Hegel and all whom he influenced, as the most accurate interpreter of Plato.

The Byzantine reception of Proclus was uninterrupted from the beginning, and his works were not in need of translation. Unlike the Latin west, although the stature of ‘Dionysius’ was unquestioned, a number of orthodox Christian theologians were untempted by Procline metaphysics. The papers by O’Meara, Tizio, and Gersh (on George Gemistos Plethon) reveal in considerable detail the struggles within orthodox theology over the value of pagan philosophy generally, especially as represented by the works of Proclus. In this milieu, Proclus appears again and again as the avatar of ancient philosophy. By the 15th century, and very near the end of the Byzantine period, we begin to see in Plethon an attempt to separate Plato both from Proclus and from Dionysian Christianity.

There are a number of other papers in this collection which I am in no position to criticize, but which I am very happy to have read. This book demonstrates splendidly that Proclus’ legacy has been most profound among those whose religion he detested and among those whose religion he could not have known. This was so not just because of the confusion over ‘Dionysius’ but also for a number of other perhaps more important reasons. After all, Proclus regarded as his most important work his Platonic Theology. It is not so much that he discovered his theology in Plato’s dialogues—though he insisted it was there—but that he took Plato to be the one who best articulated the highest principles of Hellenic religion. On reflection, it is not so surprising that both in the east and in the west and for a thousand years no one wanted to jettison Proclus altogether.

Part I Proclus
1. Proclus' Life, Works, and Education of the Soul, by Lucas Siorvanes
2. Proclus as Exegete, by Anne Sheppard
3. Proclus as Theologian, by Stephen Gersh
Part II The Influence of Proclus
II.1 Late Antiquity
4. "Dionysius the Areopagite," by John M. Dillon
Excursus 4A Damascius and Boethius, by Stephen Gersh
II.2 Medieval Islamic Philosophy
5. The Liber de causis, by Cristina D'Ancona
II.3 Medieval Byzantine Philosophy
6. Michael Psellos, by Dominic J. O'Meara
7. Eleventh-to-Twelfth Century Byzantium, by Michele Trizio
Excursus 7A George Gemistos Plethon, by Stephen Gersh
II.4 Medieval Georgian Philosophy
8. Ioane Petritsi, by Lela Alexidze
II.5 Medieval Western Philosophy
9. Wiliam of Moerbeke, Translator of Proclus, by Carlos Steel
10. The University of Paris in the Thirteenth Century, by Pasquale Porro
11. Dietrich of Frieburg and Berthold of Moosburg, by Markus Führer and Stephen Gersh
12. Nicholas of Cusa, by Stephen Gersh
II.6 The Renaissance
13. Marsilio Ficino, by Michael J.B. Allen
14. Francesco Patrizi, by Thomas Leinkauf

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