BMCR 2004.11.14

Proklos: Grundkurs über Einheit. Grundzüge der neuplatonischen Welt. Text, Übersetzung, Einleitung und Kommentar

, , Grundkurs über Einheit : Grundzüge der neuplatonischen Welt. St. Augustin: Academia Verlag, 2004. 280 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 3896652702 €34.50 (pb).

Since Dodds’ pioneering edition, translation and commentary of the Stoicheiosis theologike,1 interest in Proclus’ philosophy has increased considerably, and much of his voluminous work has been made accessible through translations into various modern languages by eminent scholars. In German, however, there have been few translations that can be taken seriously, and the most important texts have not been translated at all.2 Erwin Sonderegger’s (S.) new translation of the Stoicheiosis (Elementatio theologica; henceforth, ετ which is arguably Proclus’ philosophically most interesting text and certainly the best introduction to Neoplatonic thought, is therefore a welcome attempt to bridge a serious gap in scholarship.3 It is all the more unfortunate that the result is not a success.

S.’s book consists of an introduction (1-31), Dodds’ Greek text with facing German translation (34-205), a brief philosophical commentary (208-260), two glossaries of philosophical terms, (Greek-German and German-Greek, 261-269) and a short bibliography.

The introduction provides some basic information about Proclus’ life and works but is mainly intended to set out and defend S.’s general interpretation of the ET. According to him, the book is not about “hypostases” in the sense of concrete entities or “gods” but about the formal structure of reality. The most basic principle of this structure is unity, which operates in the diverse forms of the henads (unity itself), nous (rational structure), soul (vitality) and corporeality. For this reason, and in order to avoid modern associations of the word “theology”, S. has chosen to render the title, not “Theologischer Grundkurs”, but “Grundkurs über Einheit”. Although on the whole his interpretation is reasonable enough, S. weakens his case by constant polemics against what he calls “die Standardinterpretation” and what he describes as a Christianity-influenced reading of the ET as a theological treatise about the deduction of godlike entities from an arbitrarily posited first God, the One. S. rarely gives references for this, and indeed whoever has read Proclan scholars like Beierwaltes, Saffrey, Dillon or Siorvanes will immediately see that what S. attacks is a mere caricature and certainly not the generally agreed reading of the ET.

The translation is the longest and most important part of the book. As S. states in the introduction (28), it is aimed both at readers without knowledge of Greek and at those who need some help to understand the Greek text. S.’s general rule is to translate as literally as possible and even to stick to the Greek word order as far as German grammar allows; in particular, he refuses to supply nouns to Proclus’ frequent adjectives and pronouns in the neuter (e.g. τὰ πολλά“das Viele”, not “die vielen Dinge”, although the latter would be more normal German). These are certainly sound principles, especially the last one, since the nouns Dodds adds in such cases (e.g. “parts” or “principles”) already contain a great deal of interpretation. The German text that should result from such principles would certainly not be an easy reading, but it would give an accurate image of the Greek original and convey a good idea of Proclus’ formal, scholastic style of writing and reasoning (cf. S., p. 27). What S. has actually produced, however, almost entirely fails to meet these expectations. His Proclus is esoteric, dogmatic and often unintelligible. The shortcomings are however not due to the translating principles but rather to deviations from them and, it must be said, to a large number of syntactical misconstructions and errors of vocabulary.

I know that this is a harsh judgment, and in order to justify it I must go into some detail. The points I have to make have been numbered in order to allow an easier overview.

1. Singular and plural. I have already mentioned, and approved of, S.’s decision not to supply nouns to neuter adjectives. When these are in the plural, a German translator will normally either use the generic singular (“das Viele”) or supply a noun (“die vielen Dinge”), but it is also grammatically possible, though somewhat artificial, to use the plural without a noun (“die Vielen”). S. notes these possibilities in the introduction (25) but says only that he will use them indiscriminately. In practice, he decidedly prefers the singular, thus to some extent abandoning his principle of translating literally. Whatever his reason may be (it is nowhere stated), this practice creates serious and, to my mind, unnecessary difficulties of understanding wherever Proclus’ argument rests on the opposition of unity and plurality, as it does in the first six propositions, where the principles of One and Many are introduced, and arguably throughout the ET. The problematic consequences of S.’s indiscriminate use of singular and plural can be seen right at the beginning, in proposition 1. Here the genitive τῶν πολλῶν occurs twice, and each occurrence is translated differently: first, “vom Vielen”, then “von diesen unendlichen Vielen”. To a Greekless reader, who will of course assume that this difference is meaningful, the whole argument of proposition 1 will be lost. S. even prefers the singular when the referents of a plural pronoun or adjective have been named in the previous text, which is not just questionable but grammatically wrong (see e.g. prop. 22, p. 26,10-12 Dodds = p. 55 S.).

2. Particles. The particles μένδέ and γάρ are generally omitted. As these are Proclus’ means to make clear what he intends to be the logical structure of his text, and as in a text as tightly argued as the ET everything depends on logical structure, this omission is simply disastrous. One of Proclus’ basic forms of argument in the ET is the reductio ad absurdum (as S. notes himself in the commentary, 209f.). The horns of the dilemma are usually introduced with εἰ μὲνεἰ δὲ, which in German can conveniently be rendered as “Wenn — wenn hingegen”. In S. this logical figure is usually barely recognizable; sometimes it is made unrecognizable because of mistranslations, e.g. when in prop. 5 εἰ δὲ is translated causally as “wenn nämlich”. γάρ is essential for distinguishing Proclus’ assertions from the reasons he gives for them, which is of course indispensable as a starting point for interpretation; but by his omission S. has made that distinction almost impossible. The result is, in short, that the logical structure of the ET is hopelessly obscured. In S.’s version, Proclus seems not to be reasoning but just to be accumulating statements without a clear logical connection. Thus readers who cannot check the Greek will have great difficulties in developing any philosophical interest in Proclus; to them he will just appear as a dogmatic and even as an irrationalist.

3. Hypotactical sentences and participles. S. likes to translate participles as finite verbs and add them paratactically and asyndetically instead of translating them as subordinate clauses. The reason is probably that he does not want to anticipate interpretation by adding a connective like “während”, “wobei”, “weil”, “obwohl”. Again, this habit contributes to obscuring the logical structure, since a crucial element of the Greek, the logical subordination, is left untranslated. A similar, yet more serious problem is S.’s frequent misconstruction of complicated hypotactical sentences. Proclus often begins long periods with a series of subordinate clauses or participles that have a causal or conditional meaning; the main clause or conclusion comes at the end and can be identified only because it does not have a coordinating δὲ. In such cases S. often mistakes one of the subordinate clauses for the conclusion, which of course completely alters the logic of the sentence. For instance, prop. 5, p. 4,23f. Dodds, in S. reads: “und weil das an der Einheit Teilhabende sowohl Eines ist als auch nicht Eines, besteht die Einheit gar nie, weil eben die Vielheit das Erste ist.” A correct translation would run: “… und weil das an der Einheit Teilhabende sowohl Eines ist als auch nicht Eines, die Einheit aber noch nicht besteht, da ja die Vielheit das Erste ist.” There is no conclusion involved; the whole phrase is causally subordinated to something stated before. In S., οὔπω δ’ ὑπέστη ἕν, which is connected with the previous clause by δέ and accordingly must be a part of the “weil” clause, becomes the main clause; moreover, by an error of vocabulary οὔπω is mistaken for “never”. I do not know whether what S. has written makes sense, but it is certainly not what Proclus wrote.

4. Terminology. οὐσία is rendered with “Sein”, which, in a Platonist context, is certainly preferable to the Aristotelian “Substanz”. For the notoriously difficult cognates of μετέχειν S. uses “teilhaben” and occasionally “partizipieren”; e.g. ἀμέθεκτος is “das, woran nichts teilhat” or “unpartizipiert”. These solutions are not perfect, but they are the best German language allows for. Less fortunate are “aufstellen” for ὑφίστημι (there is no evidence that the Neoplatonists were in any way aware that the word was originally a metaphor), “Mit-Sein” for μετουσία (this is μέθεξις from the point of view of the participated; to translate this as “Mit-Sein” is weak and may be misleading) and “Begleit-Wahrnehmung” for συναίσθησις in prop. 39 (an artificial coinage which needlessly suggests some deeply hidden meaning, whereas Dodds gets the meaning quite right by writing “consciousness”; a Cartesian misunderstanding is unlikely here). But my strongest misgiving is about S.’s choice to translate ἐνέργεια as “Wirklichkeit”. The word is admittedly untranslatable, and “Wirklichkeit” is not really wrong. The problem are rather the philosophical implications. “Wirklichkeit” works quite well in an Aristotelian context, where the basic opposition is that of δύναμις and ἐνέργεια, “Möglichkeit” and “Wirklichkeit” (cf. ET props. 77-79). In Proclus, however, this dyad is expanded into the triad of οὐσία, δύναμις and ἐνέργεια, with the middle term usually signifying, not passive “potentiality” in the Aristotelian sense, but active “power” (cf. prop 79). The obvious consequence is that where there is no “Möglichkeit” it does not make much sense to talk about “Wirklichkeit” either. What is needed is something that rather corresponds to “power”, e.g. “Aktivität” or “Tätigkeit”. Moreover, in his actual discussions Proclus often leaves out the δύναμις term and opposes οὐσία and ἐνέργεια only. In S. this opposition becomes that of “Sein” and “Wirklichkeit”, two terms a German reader will naturally take to be synonymous rather than antithetical. (It is of little help that S. explains the facts correctly in the commentary, 227f.) As an illustration, let me quote the first sentence of the argument for prop. 16: “Wenn es (i.e. that which is capable of reverting on itself) nämlich untrennbar wäre von einem Körper welcher Art auch immer, hätte es keine vom Körper getrennte Wirklichkeit.” In German this is trivial or even tautological; what Proclus really means is that whatever is inseparable from body cannot act without body either, as appears clearly from the Greek.

I will not catalogue errors of vocabulary here. Let me only note that S. is not above translating προσῆκεν (prop. 27; from προσήκω) as “hat … entsandt” (as if from προίημι) or παρὰ φύσιν (prop. 122) as “neben der Natur”.

The commentary is a concise paraphrase of the argument of the ET, mainly designed to defend the reading already put forward in the introduction.

S. could have done a great service to Proclus by making one of his most important texts accessible in German. As it is, a reliable German translation of the ET, that one would not hesitate to use in undergraduate courses or to recommend to someone who wants to read Proclus but knows little or no Greek, remains to be written.


1. E.R. Dodds, Proclus: The Elements of Theology. A revised text with translation, introduction, and commentary, Oxford 1933, 2nd edition 1963.

2. The translations available are: L. Schönberger/M. Steck, Proklos: Kommentar zum ersten Buch von Euklids Elementen, Halle 1945 (not always reliable); M. Erler (trans.), Proklos: Über die Existenz des Bösen, Meisenheim 1978; id. (trans.), Proklos: Über die Vorsehung, das Schicksal und den freien Willen, Meisenheim 1980. There are no German translations of the great commentaries on Plato nor of the Platonic Theology. A curious product is R. Bartholomai (trans.), Proklos: Kommentar zu Platons Parmenides 141E-142A, St. Augustin, 2nd edition 2002 (1st ed. 1990), who restricts his translation to the part of the Parmenides commentary that is preserved only in Latin. The quality of the translation strongly arouses the suspicion that the reason for this choice was that the translator was not fully comfortable at Greek. For Zurbrüegg’s Stoicheiosis see the next note.

3. There is another recent translation of the ET, also published in 2004: Ingeborg Zurbrügg, Proklos: Elemente der Theologie. Deutsche Übersetzung, Remscheid: Gardez! Verlag 2004. This too is inadequate.