BMCR 2011.08.16

Ten Gifts of the Demiurge: Proclus on Plato’s Timaeus

, Ten Gifts of the Demiurge: Proclus on Plato's Timaeus. London/New York: Bristol Classical Press, 2011. x, 309. ISBN 9780715638545. $80.00.

The title of the Emilie Kutash’s book derives from Proclus’ own way of drawing divisions in the text of Plato’s Timaeus. According to Proclus, Plato’s Demiurge bestows ten gifts upon the visible cosmos that he (eternally) creates. This notion of ten gifts allows Proclus to impose an order on the text of the Timaeus from 32b through 41a:

Beginning with the body of the world, [Plato relates how the Demiurge grants the cosmos certain gifts]: He first makes it perceptible with respect to the extreme terms of sense perception [viz. sight and touch] (Tim. 31b). Next – what is more perfect than this – he grants to it a bond which binds together the bodies in it through proportion (31c). In the third place, he makes it a whole constituted of the whole of the elements (32c). Fourth, he makes it a sphere in order that it should be most similar to itself in respect of form (33b). Then fifth, he shows that [it is self sufficient since] all things that it undergoes it undergoes by itself (33c–d). Sixth, providing it with a motion fitting to intellect (34a). Seventh, animating this through divine soul (34b). In the eighth place he imparts to it revolution in time (36e–37a). Ninth, he establishes in it the sanctuaries of the gods [i.e. the stars] who create together the ‘the perfect year’ (39d5). In the tenth place, he makes it all complete by producing all the animals in the likeness of the four-fold idea [of Animal Itself]. ( in Tim. II. 5.17–31)

Kutash’s book consists of 12 chapters that correspond almost exactly to Proclus’ ten gifts. Chapter 1 is an introduction; 2 a discussion of the historical setting for Proclus’ book and the Athenian school; 3 discusses the first gift of perceptibility; 4 takes up the use of proportion and bond among the four elements, as well as mathematical proportion more generally in Proclus’ physics; 5 examines the notion of the wholeness of the cosmos; 6 deals with the universe’s spherical shape, its self-sufficiency and its circular motion; 7 deals with the World Soul; 8 with Proclus’ theory of time; 9 focuses on Proclus’ exegesis of the traditional gods in Tim. 40e-41a; Chapter 10 considers the human soul and the nature of its salvation; 11 the human being as microcosm; while 12 provides a concluding chapter. (The book also includes 35 pages of end notes and an 8-page bibliography, as well as index locorum and subject index.)

In the introduction Kutash grapples with what she rightly sees as importantly different approaches to scholarship on neoplatonism. A work like Proclus’ Timaeus Commentary is full of attempts to harmonise Plato with the Chaldean Oracles or to confirm Plato’s doctrines from what is found in the (allegedly) Orphic writings or from other inspired traditions. Should philosophical scholarship pass over this material in silence and focus on the arguments alone? Or should we see argument in the neoplatonic commentary tradition as subordinate to discursive practices aimed at psychic self-transformation and reunion with the gods? Kutash sometimes characterises this as a contrast between philosophical and theological aspects of Proclus’ text. But this, I think, is not quite right. Theology can be as sober and argumentatively rigorous as you like: just look at Aquinas’ Summa. Other times she contrasts the ‘entheastic’ with the philosophical aspects of Proclus’ work. This seems closer to the mark. Kutash prefers to see these as necessary complements to one another, bound together by ‘logographic necessity’ (p. 11). In spite of the allusion to Phaedrus 264b in this phrase, I think Kutash’s point is not that this entheastic content is necessary to the unity of Proclus’ text – something that it must have in order to resemble the unity of a living creature. Rather, it is because she supposes that discursive thought (which she aligns with finitude) is inadequate to the task of understanding the subject matter of the text: the infinite or inexhaustible cosmos (p. 21). Chapter 2 qualifies this claim somewhat by allowing that some references to the pagan gods and the Oracles are not a product of logographic necessity, but instead result from Proclus’ political project of standing up for and preserving Hellenic culture against Christianity.

Chapter 3 ostensibly concerns the first gift of perceptibility. But here Kutash confronts a problem. The architecture of the Ten Gifts isn’t introduced until the beginning of Book III of Proclus’ commentary. Book I (4.5–5.8) seems to present a rather different scheme for conceiving of the structure of Timaeus 17a-27c (cosmic opposition presented through the images of the conflict between the Athenians and Atlantans; cosmic unity presented through the recapitulation of the ideal polis from the Republic). Proclus regards 27c–31b as providing an account of the cosmos’ demiurgic, paradigmatic and final causes. Kutash, however, treats Book I as preparing the ground for the first gift of perceptibility by presenting an image of the way in which higher causes discipline unruly matter in order that materiality should become perceptible. This strikes me as a creative idea, but one that seems a bit vague in its execution. I myself suspect that the idea of ten Demiurgic gifts does not actually organise the whole of Proclus’ commentary – only that portion on Timaeus 32b–41a. In a similar manner, Chapter 5 ostensibly deals with the fact that the Demiurge makes the universe ‘a whole of wholes’ ( Tim. 32c). However, as she did with the first gift and Book I, Kutash reads Book II of Proclus’ commentary in light of this idea. Hence the focus of this chapter shifts back to Tim. 27c–31b and Proclus’ discussion of that part of the text. As with the first gift of the Demiurge, I think this is somewhat forced. In any event, a careful examination of the various ways in which Proclus uses the notion of a ‘whole’ would have been helpful in understanding exactly what this gift comes to.

Subsequent chapters take up the Demiurgic gifts to the cosmos in the order listed above. Kutash pursues many connections with other aspects of Greek philosophy and its subsequent reception along the way. At times Kutash’s enthusiasm for Proclus leads her to write a bit too much like him — at least for someone with my own relatively austere proclivities in philosophical writing. Summing up the gift of time and eternity, Kutash writes:

Husserl [in The Concept of Number (1887) quoted in Derrida, Origin of Geometry (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962), p. 28, n.6.] discusses the fact that ideal objects have to be produced repeatedly ‘and are in no way capable of being found’. The mystery of their existence is a perennial problem for philosophy, as it was from its earliest inception. The conviction that the world is eternal allows creation in time, in the sense that temporality can provide the space for demonstration of Eternal principles as they ‘come to be’ in generated existence. Essence moves into Existence, through Demiurgic intervention, producing the cosmos in an eternal dance. Demiurgic event is the activity of paradigmatic production. (p. 172)

This is richly evocative writing and Kutash clearly finds in Proclus’ commentary an occasion for reflection on fundamental notions such as time and the existence of purely intelligible objects. If, however, your objective as a reader is to penetrate Proclus’ own richly evocative writing and try to put its content into something more closely approximating a plain brown wrapper, this book may not be for you. Kutash also invokes the bi-logic of the psychoanalytic theorist Ignacio Matte Blanco to help her understand the notion of the infinite or unlimited in Proclus. Friends of the principle of non-contradiction will not be likely to find this assistance particularly congenial. If, however, you are broadly sympathetic to neoplatonic ideas, you will find in Kutash a learned guide to Proclus’ text and a source of original ideas.

Given the limits of this review and my own preoccupations I’ll selfishly focus the remaining discussion on one of the later chapters of Kutash’s book, which concerns that part of the Timaeus Commentary that I’m presently working on. This deals with the condition of embodied human souls and their salvation.

There is a long-standing problem about understanding the role of philosophy and theurgy respectively in realizing the goal of assimilation to the divine in neoplatonism. Kutash does a very good job of spelling out the limitations to the idea that the human soul or its intellect might come to be like the One. The former is too plural in its nature; the latter limited to noêsis, which is inadequate to the apprehension of that which is beyond Being. Kutash has a number of suggestions for resolving this tension. First she notes that Proclus is careful to distinguish between likeness or homoiôsis to encosmic gods and unification or [henôsis] with transcendent ones (p. 197). If human well-being consists only in the former and not the latter, then the problem is eased somewhat. Theurgy serves to attract the notice of the gods, who are able to liberate the human soul from the last and most impure of its psychic vehicles. Kutash has the insight that, since it was the junior gods who bound the human soul to its vehicles in the first place ( in Tim. III 236.21), it is open to them to liberate it (p. 200). In this liberated state, the human soul will think in accordance with the circle of the Same, just as the encosmic gods do (cf. III 296.7-18).

I’m tempted to think that for Proclus’ soteriology, this is the ultimate Old Milwaukee moment – ‘it just doesn’t get any better than this’, as the beer commercial used to say. Kutash, however, concludes this chapter by reflecting that the separation between the source of all unity and the soul is in some sense an illusion: ‘there was never a separation in the first place’ (p. 214). She here invokes the ‘all things in all’ formula that is so pervasive in Proclus (cf. Elements of Theology, prop. 103) to vindicate the presence of the One to the liberated soul. But what of the qualification ‘but in each in an appropriate manner’? Given what she herself has said – and said rightly – about the nature of the human soul in this chapter, it is hard to see how henôsis with higher causes can consist in anything more than likeness to the encosmic gods.

I hope that this brief review has given some sense of the wide scope of Kutash’s book and its enthusiasm for Proclus’ philosophy. It is an ambitious book and I sometimes wish she had tried to pursue fewer themes and spent more time in carefully elaborating a narrower selection of ideas. But in first books authors sometimes serve up more than can be comfortably digested. Readers should also note that the index locorum is rather incomplete. It appears that passages referred to in discussion or notes, but not quoted at length, are not included. The bibliography also contains some odd line spacing here and there, which requires some time to puzzle out.