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Proclus Diadochus: Commentary on Plato's Timaeus. Volume I. Book 1: Proclus on the Socratic State and Atlantis.

Proclus Diadochus

Commentary on Plato's Timaeus.

Volume I. Book 1: Proclus on the Socratic State and Atlantis.

Trans. Harold Tarrant.

New York: Cambridge University Press 2007.

Pp. 358.


(cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-521-84659-2).

Proclus Diadochus

Commentary on Plato's Timaeus. Volume III.

Book 3 Part 1: Proclus on the World's Body.

Trans. Dirk Baltzly.

New York: Cambridge University Press 2007.

Pp. 218.


(cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-521-84595-3).

In the English-speaking world, the study of the final phase of philosophy in antiquity--the late blooming of the schools of Athens and Alexandria in the fifth and sixth centuries--has picked up tremendously over the past few decades. In recounting the whys and the wherefores of this development, it is impossible to overstate the importance of Richard Sorabji's Ancient Commentators on Aristotle project and its offshoots. The translation of texts has proved enormously stimulating both for a general philosophical audience unable to tackle the dense and forbidding technical prose of the late antique philosophers in the original Greek, and for the rather large body of scholars gathered around the translation project itself. Most heartening of all, a crossover audience has developed in the form of students who start off reading an up-to-date translation, but then graduate to an examination of the original Greek text.

Though it emanates from a different source, the translation of Proclus' (d. 485 CE) commentary on Plato's Timaeus undertaken by Harold Tarrant and his associates is another fine addition to this late antique library. Proclus' Timaeus commentary may be the single most important philosophical document of post-Plotinian provenance available to us: Plato's cosmological dialogue is one of only a handful of philosophical texts to have attracted continuous attention over two millennia, and for much of the earlier part of its reception Proclus provides us with the best (in some cases only) witness we have. Much of what we know about Porphyry's and Iamblichus' views, for instance, comes from Proclus. In addition, throughout Proclus' commentary there are scattered references to the teachings of earlier Greek philosophers; and Proclus' commentary also gives us insight into what a philosopher in late antiquity would have made of the Orphic, Chaldean, and neo-Pythagorean materials that enjoyed great esteem in Hellenic religious circles. For these reasons alone, improved access to Proclus' lengthiest surviving work constitutes a great service to the study of ancient intellectual history.

But Proclus' Timaeus commentary also possesses value for what it tells us about Proclus' philosophy, and ultimately about Plato's. As the translators' introduction to the series makes clear, Proclus had a very particular approach to Plato. Because the late antique Platonists believed each of the philosopher's dialogues to have a distinct skopos, which again every aspect of the dialogue was meant to serve, no detail was deemed too trivial to merit comment, and no shade of imputed meaning too far-fetched if it fit the overall picture. At the same time, the normative notion of a dialogue's scope set at least some limits to the proliferation of possible readings. Overall, the extraordinarily close reading imposed by the late antique curriculum on the reading of Plato's texts, as well as Aristotle's, resulted in an enormously useful set of structural insights and cross-references, one that can help the modern-day reader even when that reader no longer shares the metaphysical precepts that were assumed as a matter of course by the late antique school philosophers.

Proclus considers the Timaeus, in specific, to constitute a study of nature or physiologia which, however, has one eye constantly on theology. This is because a comprehensive account of nature, as much as the latter may be an immanent principle ('the last one of those causes that construct this sensible bodily world', In Tim 1:11.10-11), will account for its transcendent causes as well, and consequently recount also the ways in which the sensible world resembles its source. For this reason Proclus can extol Plato's sagacity in calling the physical world, which is always coming to be, a blessed god at Tim 34b (also a sensible god, theos aisthetos, at 92c, though this falls outside the scope of the extant commentary). He censures other schools for excluding the divine from their understanding of nature--Aristotle is meant here--while at the same time reprimanding gently earlier Neoplatonists such as Porphyry and Iamblichus for concentrating solely on the symbolic and the allegorical to the exclusion of the plainly natural and the scientific. For Proclus, Plato's catholic concerns, wide interests, and careening literary style demonstrate the strength and comprehensiveness of his philosophical method, not its weakness or immaturity, as some modern scholars have been inclined to judge, typically on the basis of Aristotle's often unfair appraisals.

The first volume of this translation series provides an example, writ large, of the fertility of Proclus' approach. Many have wondered what to make of the prologue to the Timaeus (17a-27b), with its Atlantean allusions and a seemingly meandering setting of the stage which eventually gives way to a monotone exposition by the eponymous interlocutor. Elements of the Republic are rehearsed, though to what effect is not immediately clear. Talk of a Timaeus-Critias complex (or a trilogy encompassing the Republic), as is common in the contemporary literature, only serves to restate the problem more forcefully for the philosopher, who assumes that Plato was writing philosophically. For if the two works really do form a unity, then what function does the 'likely story' (Tim 29b-d) of the world's fashioning by the Demiurge serve, sandwiched as it is between two political fables? Conversely, if in the Timaeus we are indeed dealing with Plato's Cosmology, as for instance Francis Cornford believed, then what is the purpose of the dialogue's stately introduction? Symptomatic of the difficulties faced by the modern reader is the fact that in his monumental 1928 commentary A. E. Taylor devotes 58 pages to the geographical and societal details covered by the proemium, while Cornford dismisses the entire introduction with a single paragraph.

Proclus' understanding of the dialogue's scope and method, coupled with his belief in how reality works, allows him to dispense with the problem in a single stroke. The Timaeus is a superior account of nature precisely because it deals both in paradigms and in images; consequently, it is only natural for Plato to teach about the supernal reality through its reflection first on the political, and later on the psychological, level. After all, in natural philosophy we must begin from what is primary and more knowable to us, before we ascend to what is primary of itself (cf. Aristotle, Phys. 1.1). The study of nature in Proclus thus runs parallel with an ethically attuned exploration of divine and human realities: whatever one may think otherwise of Proclus' elaborations regarding the reflections cast by the henadic series of gods upon the Socratic state and on Atlantis, surely this much at least can be said to be a legitimate lesson derived from Plato's middle dialogues.

The third book in Proclus' commentary is of a more technical nature, but likewise benefits from Proclus' systematizing approach. The third volume in the translation series recounts the way the world's body is fashioned (Tim 31b-34b); because Proclus in his proemium has established that the dialogue deals in parts and wholes as well as images and paradigms, it is natural for him to apply these concepts now to the endowment of the world's body. Specifically, the way in which the physical world constitutes a 'whole made out of wholes' (Tim 33a) or of 'whole parts' (holon meros--the term is Proclus') is at issue. A multitude of important points about Plato's ontological and cosmological assumptions are raised; Proclus also finds time to make sense of the difficult passages in which Plato describes the universe's generation in Pythagorean proportional terms, and to mount a defense of Plato's theory of four elements (as opposed to Aristotle's five) in light of this theory of proportionality. The results are instructive for all Plato scholars of every age, and it must be said that in his introduction Dirk Baltzly, the translator of the third volume, does a particularly sterling job of elucidating these dense passages for the reader's benefit.

Otherwise, too, the translators' introductions and annotations are highly informative and on the whole balanced in presenting the current scholarshi(A few very recent works could have been mentioned, most prominently Marije Martijn's 'Theology, Naturally: Proclus on Science of Nature as Theology and the Aristotelian Principle of Metabasis', in Perkams & Piccione, eds., Proklos: Methode, Seelenlehre, Metaphysik, Leiden: Brill 2006.) The general introduction to vol. 1 practically constitutes an introduction to ancient Platonism all on its own. In my view, the only point likely to raise eyebrows is the way in which the five causes counted off by Proclus in the beginning of his commentary are documented in the footnotes (93-5). Tarrant sees this fivefold division anticipated in Seneca and in Plutarch of Athens, but fails to discuss in any way its relation to the six causes standardly recognized in late antique Platonism (matter, form, and instrumental, paradigmatic, productive, and final). Of these six, three are true causes and three complementary ones (synaitiai: see, e.g., Philoponus, In Phys 5.7-16); the fact that Proclus in this connection drops out the instrumental cause (to organikon) raises some very interesting questions about the symmetric relations at play in the Neoplatonic picture and about the way Platonic cosmology relates to Aristotelian physics in Proclus' mind, but the scant documentation on this point serves to obscure the issue.

As for the translations themselves, these are uniformly lucid and faithful. One occasionally misses the hymnal tones affected by Thomas Taylor in his 1820 version, which manage to convey something of the stolid airs of Proclus' original Greek, but the loss is more than outweighed by the dependability and uniformity of Tarrant's and Baltzly's renderings and their ability to parse Proclus' convoluted phrasings into manageable philosophical nuggets, where this is achievable, at the same time preserving ambiguities where this is the safer course. Tarrant and Baltzly have also liberally applied headings and sub-headings to the text in an effort to assist and orientate the reader: these divisions are well-motivated on the whole, and the headings helpful.

Proclus' Timaeus commentary must have been truly monumental; the extant version, which only goes up to Tim 44d, already comprises 1131 pages in Ernst Diehl's Teubner edition. The translators argue that aspects of it must have been based on Syrianus' lectures, something that was standard practice in late antiquity. Proclus is supposed to have completed the work when he was twenty-seven, a prodigious feat if true (Marinus, Vita Procli 13). Ultimately, it may prove fortunate that this valuable translation series starts with those two segments of Proclus' commentary, and of Plato's Timaeus, whose merits have sometimes appeared less than obvious. We are yet to receive volumes on the central distinction between Being and Becoming; on the creation of the world soul and of time; and on the Demiurge's allocation of further creative tasks to the junior gods, all of which are poised to yield bountiful riches for students and scholars alike. But for now it is good to pause here, for 'here too there are gods' (Aristotle, Parts of Animals I 5, 645a20, citing Heraclitus), indeed a great multitude of them.

Taneli Kukkonen

University of Jyvaskyla
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Author:Kukkonen, Taneli
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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