BMCR 2021.07.19

Proclus and the Chaldean oracles

, Proclus and the Chaldean oracles: a study on Proclean exegesis, with a translation and commentary of Proclus' Treatise on Chaldean philosophy. Routledge monographs in classical studies. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2020. Pp. viii, 199. ISBN 9780367473143 $124.00.

For readers of late-antique Platonism the Chaldean Oracles are both inescapable and, in their details at least, often mysterious. The approximately two hundred fragments of the Oracles which survive come to us through their citations by Platonists for whom they were an authoritative text. The most fertile source of fragments, and the subject of this monograph, is Proclus, who makes frequent use of these verses to connect his own arguments with the words, as he sees them, of the gods themselves. For scholars wishing to approach the oracles, much fundamental work has been done in the editions and translations of des Places (into French)[1] and Majercik (into English).[2]

The goal of Spanu in the current work is not to produce a new edition of the fragments, though he does consider this a desiderandum, but rather to determine the extent to which Proclus alters the Chaldean Oracles in integrating them into his own philosophical system. Given that our access to these fragments is often solely through Proclus, this raises obvious difficulties: how can we determine the extent to which Proclus may have changed the cosmogonic, philosophical and theurgic contents of the oracles when our access to them is in any case possible only through his interpretation? This is a problem of which Spanu is well aware (p.3). By paying closer attention to Proclus’ methods in excerpting and integrating these verses, it is possible to a degree to separate Proclus’ interpretation, and especially his tendency to systematise and refine the contents of the oracles, from the oracles themselves. Information drawn from other late-antique Platonists (especially Damascius) can, of course, offer at least a differing perspective, even if it is not necessarily one that is any closer to the lost, original meaning of the text. Spanu presents close and detailed analysis of the fragments and frequently offers insightful observations on both the contents of the lost text itself and on Proclus’ use of it in his own philosophical contexts. Though this book is likely to be difficult going for readers unacquainted with the Chaldean Oracles and with the main features of Proclus’ philosophical system, it has much to offer for readers already interested in, and informed about, these topics.

The ordering of the fragments by Spanu is not that of the previous editions, though the numbering of des Places’ edition is retained for convenience of reference. The fragments are arranged instead by major themes such as ‘The Chaldean Triad’ and ‘The World’s Intelligible Archetype’. The choice of themes which Spanu has followed has the advantage that they are each broad and correspond uncontroversially with major foci of the surviving oracles. The reader is not, in other words, railroaded into a particular reconstruction of the text any more than is necessary for any grouping of fragments. In general, the discussion of each fragment fulfils the promise of the introduction to give enough of the original context in Proclus to make the argument clear.

On a few occasions, some further reminders of those contexts would have been welcome. Fragment 81 des Places, for instance, comes from Proclus’ Commentary on the Parmenides. Spanu reasonably quotes the lead-in to the fragment itself (pp. 58-59), but the extract from Proclus as cited begins: ‘This is the reason why in the secondary order as well the more universal rules over the more particular.’ Though it is important to be reminded, as we are, of the broader points which Proclus is making, that is, his view of the priority of the more universal over the more particular, it would also be helpful to be reminded of what ‘the reason’ is in the original passage.

Similarly, there are occasions when some further quotation of the Greek would be desirable in Spanu’s translations. Fragment 51 des Places, for instance, runs in Spanu’s translation: ‘Near the hollow of the cartilage of (Hecate’s) right hip / The mighty stream of the primal Soul gushes forth with abundance / Ensouling completely light fire ether worlds’ (p.61). Coming at this only through the English, a reader may well wonder whether the last four words translate some sort of compound or whether this is an asyndeton. On checking, the latter turns out to be correct: φάος πῦρ αἰθέρα κόσμους. This could be made clearer either by giving the Greek text, as Spanu does on other occasions, or simply by punctuating with commas (as do Majercik and des Places).

The English both of the discussion and of the translations is generally clear, though there are on occasion typos and infelicities that should have been rectified by the publishers in copy-editing. For the most part these do not affect readers’ understanding of Spanu’s arguments. One possible exception, however, is the use of ‘all but flawless’ in the sense of ‘anything but flawless’ (p.11). As the discussion continues it becomes clear that the latter must be what Spanu intends, but on first sight the wording does suggest a much rosier view of des Places’ edition than Spanu does in fact hold.

It is the details of Spanu’s discussion which make this book the valuable contribution which it is. As he notes in the introduction, a topic like the assessment of Proclus’ use of the Chaldean Oracles must always remain open to debate (p. 11). Nonetheless, it certainly is possible to arrive at greater clarity, if not certainty, concerning important points. To take just one example, the long discussion of the interpretation of the Chaldean Father by Proclus (and secondarily by Damascius), and how these authors integrated this central figure into their own theological schemata, is careful and enlightening (pp. 17-29). In order to frame these detailed interpretations, fuller introductions and conclusions to the book’s chapters and sections would have been helpful, in order to orient readers concerning the broader significance of the discussions of details, and to reinforce the many excellent observations which are made on specific fragments. Each thematic section begins without preamble, launching into the fragments and commentary. For the ‘wider readership’ alluded to in the book’s acknowledgements, this is likely to be off-putting. Similarly, while the Conclusions (pp. 166-7) are coherently expressed and remind readers of some of the leading points, some more extended reflection on the significance of Spanu’s findings, both in relation to Proclus and the Chaldean Oracles and to the broader late-antique Platonic background, would have been very welcome. Two pages of Conclusions after so much dense and detailed discussion does not seem sufficient.

Spanu’s edition and translation of the surviving extracts from Proclus’ On Chaldean Philosophy, relayed to us by Michael Psellus, are welcome additions. Spanu may well be right to avoid the earlier practice of referring to this as a ‘commentary’ on the Chaldean Oracles. It might be added, however, that in avoiding a lemmatic commentary form, this text seems to have resembled more closely the Commentary on the Republic, though in that case too not everyone will agree in calling it a ‘commentary’ at all. The suggestion (p. 161) that the difference in form may be because the surviving extracts come from notes taken by a student when Proclus was lecturing on the Chaldean Oracles is possibly correct, but does not really seem necessary. As Spanu knows, Proclus did not always write in lemmatic form, and the extracts as they stand certainly are Proclean in style.

Spanu is right to see a difference of purpose between the Oracles and Proclus: the use of philosophy is indeed a means to an end for the Oracles, a mere communicative device to convey their meaning to human beings. It is also certainly true that Proclus wants to build solid philosophical arguments, as Spanu says, and that he sometimes seems to deem ‘the Oracles to be able to reach a level of knowledge that will always be precluded to philosophy’ (p. 167). I would, however, slightly qualify the claim that the construction of arguments is the ‘main goal’ for Proclus: Proclus’ system aims at a transformation of the philosopher, a gradual approach to the Intelligible and ultimately to the One / Good itself. This is every bit as much a return, a reversion (epistrophē) in Proclus’ terms, to an origin, as is the trajectory of the theurgist drawing inspiration from the Chaldean Oracles. Philosophy as practised by Proclus, however dry and plodding it may sometimes seem in the commentaries, is still intended to effect the transformation of the philosopher, to lead ultimately to likeness to god and reversion to the One. It is this shared purpose with a difference of means, I would add, which ultimately underlies the general conclusion reached by Spanu that ‘Proclus’ exegesis certainly agrees in spirit, even if not always in details, with the original Chaldean doctrine’ (p. 167).

This is a book which scholars both of Proclus and of the Chaldean Oracles will want to have at their disposal, along with the editions of Majercik and des Places, and the old but still useful monograph of Lewy.[3] Spanu has taken on a task of considerable difficulty and one which does represent, as he suggests, the next necessary step in the interpretation of the Chaldean Oracles: the systematic study of the adaptation of Chaldean material in the works of late-antique Platonists, especially Proclus and Damascius.


[1] des Places, É. (ed. and trans), Oracula Chaldaica, ed. and trans., 3rd ed. Paris 2010.

[2] Majercik, R. (ed. and trans.) The Chaldaean Oracles. Text, Translation and Commentary, 2nd ed. Dilton Marsh 2013.

[3] Lewy, H. Chaldean Oracles and Theurgy 3rd ed. by Michel Tardieu, Paris 2011.