BMCR 2002.10.19

Proclus: On the Eternity of the World (de Aeternitate Mundi)

, , , , On the eternity of the world = De aeternitate mundi. The Joan Palevsky imprint in classical literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. xii, 189 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0520225546. $50.00.

Within the Anglo-American philosophical community, late antiquity is currently hot. The series of translations of the ancient commentators on Aristotle, coordinated by Richard Sorabji, is one source of this new interest. However, within the past few years, more and more attention has been focused on the philosophy of Proclus and on his commentaries on Plato’s works. The present volume brings these two important strands in late antique philosophy together.

The pagan Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus (410-85) composed a treatise presenting 18 arguments for the eternity of the world. This work is now lost to us. However, it was the subject of a detailed attempt at refutation by the Christian Neoplatonist John Philoponus (c. 490-570) in his work De Aeternitate Mundi contra Proclum.1 In his treatise, Philoponus states each of Proclus’ 18 arguments before going on to try to refute each one individually. Our manuscript of Philoponus’ refutation is missing the first argument, but it is preserved in an Arabic version.

Lang and Macro (hereafter L/M) assemble and edit the Greek text from Philoponus and provide translation and commentary. The Arabic text of the missing first argument is included as an appendix with a translation by Jon McGinnis. L/M also include as another appendix the Latin translation of the 18 Proclean arguments within Philoponus’ Contra Proclum as they appear in the the 16th century translation by Gaspare Marcello Montagnese. In addition, there is a 37 page introduction, an index of Greek words and an index nominum.

The introduction is divided into four parts. In the first part, L/M argue against the view that Proclus’ De Aet. should be seen primarily as an anti-Christian treatise. The work actually belongs in the context of disagreements between Platonists about the proper interpretation of the Timaeus. Accordingly, the second section of the introduction provides a very brief account of the Academy, and in particular the tradition of commentary on the Timaeus begun by Crantor. The third section discusses the interpretation that Plutarch and Atticus provide of the Timaeus. According to Plutarch, Plato’s dialogue describes the temporal creation of the cosmos and the soul. L/M argue that it is this sort of Platonism — not Christianity — that is the main target of Proclus’ arguments. The final section of the introduction discusses the text and translation. L/M have some comments on the difficulties of articular infinitives in Proclus, as well as the problems presented by the modal force, or lack thereof, in agenêtos and aphthartos.

This volume is very elegant in its layout. L/M provide a synopsis of each argument on the right hand page immediately prior to the translation. One turns the page to find the Greek text on the left, critical apparatus at the bottom, the translation on the right, and the commentary on the translation as endnotes appended to each section. Since many of the arguments are no more than a page in length, these endnotes are typically no more than a page away from where one is reading.

Anyone working in the area of late antique philosophy will want to own this book. The translation is clear and very readable. The text is conservative. L/M reject a few of Rabe’s additions and supply a few of their own, typically either on the basis of what Philoponus says or from the passages of Plato that Proclus is discussing. The commentary deals with a number of difficult technical terms in Neoplatonist philosophy. L/M note in their introduction that there are strong affinities with Proclus’ Elements of Theology and his views on method expressed in the commentary on Euclid Book I. So the commentary is particularly strong on locating premises that Proclus’ arguments in De Aet deploy within the Elements. There are also ample references to the texts of Plato and Aristotle since Proclus writes for an audience that he simply assumes will hear an echo of, say, a particular Phaedrus passage as such and see the significance of such an allusion.

Philosophers whose interests are not quite so scholarly will also benefit from this book. One could organise a very nice advanced seminar on the theme of the eternity of the world in ancient philosophy, beginning from Aristotle’s texts, then working through L/M’s translation of Proclus and Wildberg’s translation of Philoponus’ Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World.2 Nonetheless, we still await the final member of this hat trick on the eternity of the world: a translation of Philoponus’ Contra Proclum is in preparation for Sorabji’s Ancient Commentators series.

In the remainder of this review, I will take up a few of the themes discussed in L/M’s introduction. There are a couple of points raised where I agree with the conclusions, but not with the arguments by means of which the conclusions are reached. Let no one infer that I suppose that this is anything other than a very good book. You will certainly want to buy copies for all the scholars of late antiquity on your Christmas list!

The first point concerns the purpose of Proclus’ work. As noted, nearly all our evidence of the text of Proclus’ work on the eternity of the world comes from Philoponus’ attempt to refute it. Since Philoponus was a Christian, it is easy and natural to assume that he was motivated in part by his religious views to attack the thesis of the world’s eternity. It is also easy to assume that Proclus’ purpose in writing De Aet. was similar. He wanted to present philosophical objections to a central tenet of Christian thought. For this reason, De Aet. is frequently given the subtitle ‘Against the Christians’. But L/M argue in their introduction that we should not rush to judgment in either case. The evidence for the impact of Philoponus’ Christianity on his philosophical writings is very slender. In Proclus’ case, even if we agree with the idea that he has ‘coded words’ for reference to Christianity, only one of the candidate code words appears in De Aet., and it is more likely to refer to Platonists such as Plutarch and Atticus who suppose that Plato presents a literal creation story.3 L/M suggest that we should perhaps see Philoponus as a Christian philosopher more like Boethius than Augustine. They bolster their case for seeing the disagreement between Proclus and Philoponus by summarising one of Philoponus’ responses to Proclus. In it, Philoponus argues that Proclus’ own conception of the self-constituted ( to authupstaton) should lead him to conclude that an eternally existing world would have the sort of reality appropriate only to its intelligible paradigm. That is, Philoponus objects to Proclus using stock Neoplatonist notions and attempts to beat him at his own game.

I think L/M should consider how much such an argument shows. If Philoponus proposes to really refute Proclus’ arguments on the eternity of the world, he must engage with those arguments on the basis of premises that Proclus himself would have to accept. Thus it should come as no surprise that Philoponus attempts to turn Proclus’ own notion of the self-constituted against him. He does the same thing with Aristotle’s notion of the infinite as the indefinitely extendable finite in his work Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World. This methodology does not in itself show that it is necessary to think of the exchange between the two Neoplatonists as an internal affair, having no bearing on pagan and Christian conflicts. (It is to be hoped that this subject will be discussed at length in the introduction to the translation of Philoponus’ Contra Proclum currently in preparation in Sorabji’s Commentators series.) In any event, it seems to me that L/M are on much firmer ground when they point out how little positive evidence there is for the view that Proclus’ De Aet. is an anti-Christian polemic. I am thus in broad agreement with their conclusion, even if I find one of the arguments for that conclusion not entirely convincing.

Finally allow me to offer an observation on L/M’s discussion of the problems of agenêtos as ‘ungenerated’ or ‘ungenerable’. L/M suppose that a contradiction would appear in many contexts if we translated ‘ungenerable’ rather than ‘ungenerated’, for Proclus insists that the Demiurge eternally generates the cosmos. Thus, to regard it as the kind of thing that can have no beginning, and also to describe the Demiurge’s activity as Proclus does, would involve a contradiction.

But the appearance of contradiction goes away as soon as one recognises that there are different kinds of generation. The cosmos cannot have the kind of generation that we mortals provide to the various objects we make, but it can have a different kind of generation. This is the point of the distinction that Proclus draws at in Tim. I. 277,14-34. There Proclus says that Plato uses the word ‘generated’ or ‘generable’ with reference to the cosmos in such a way as to make it a middle term. The cosmos is generated ‘in a certain respect’. This is between the intelligibles (which are haplôs aei) and the way in which the term must be used in reference to sensible things (which are haplôs genôton). The moral to be drawn from this, I think, is that there are very few constraints on how one must translate any theoretical term in Neoplatonism. Here, as in any moderately complex theory, the meaning that terms have is often a function of the roles that they play in relation to other theoretical terms. The only rule that is worth following is the one that says: assume that a philosopher is trying to offer an argument that will make sense and translate accordingly. This, it seems to me, is exactly what L/M do in practice. I only wish to register a small complaint that in their introduction they may be seeing an interpretive problem where there really isn’t one — or at least not a very big one.

Let me emphasize that these are very tiny caveats. I am more or less convinced of their conclusion that Proclus’ treatise is not primarily intended as anti-Christian polemic. Moreover, I think that their translation of agenêtos as ‘ungenerated’ is just fine. Nonetheless, it seems to me that they have sometimes overplayed their hand ever so slightly in some of their arguments for these conclusions.


1. Philoponus, De Aeternite Mundi contra Proclum, ed. H. Rabe (Leipzig: Teubner, 1899).

2. Philoponus, Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World, trans. C. Wildberg (London: Duckworth, 1987).

3. For such coded references to Christians, see H. D. Saffrey, ‘Allusions antichrétiennes chez Proclus: Le Diadoque Platonicien’, Revue des sciences philosophiques et théoloiques 59 (1979), 553-63.