Torre de Babel



§ 30 – Neo-Platonism

Proclus (1)

Proclus. Life

Proclus (412-485 A.D.) carefully prepared himself for the profession of forensic oratory and afterwards gave attention to the sciences —particularly to geometry, preparing commentaries on the works of Euclid—, gaining probably in this way much of that fine intellectual power and that appreciation of scientific method and form which place him among the master-dialecticians and system-makers. He was especially noted for his moral and spiritual excellence; for the possession not merely of the «political virtues,» but also of the «theological,» or «religious» virtues.

«He seems to have held the view that the pupil of theology ought to avail himself of every branch of enlightenment, but the philosophical specially, as a means to a higher intelligence, in that he is to purify himself by virtue, to make himself master of physics, and by logical exercises prepare himself for a knowledge of the divine. His object is to construct a complete system of theology on a train of consequential reasoning».

He mastered the whole course of Greek philosophy, prepared commentaries on the Parmenides and Timæus of Plato, and Plato’s theology generally, and taught philosophy at Athens.

The Philosophy of Proclus

The philosophy of Proclus may be described in general terms as substantially the same in content with that of Plotinus, differing from it in scientific rigidity and symmetry, as regards forms, and by a more marked theological aim. Immediately below the One there is in the system of Proclus not, as in that of Plotinus, the intelligible world, or reason and being, but a «plurality of unities» which mediate between the One and what is below them, the One being otherwise entirely out of relation to that which emanates from it. These unities are gods. They are «followed by the triad of the intelligible, intelligible-intellectual, and intellectual essences. The first of these falls under the concept of being, the second under that of life, the third under that of thought. Between these three essences, or classes of essences, there exist also, notwithstanding their unity, an order of rank; the second participates in the first, the third in the second. The intelligible in the narrower sense of the term, or Being, includes three triads, in each of which the first two terms are «limit» and «illimitation,» the third terms being in the first triad, the union of the two first or «being»; in the second, «life»; in the third, ideas or that which has «life in itself». In each of these triads, the first or limiting term is also denominated by Proclus (who follows in this particular the precedent of Jamblichus) «Father»; the second or limited term, Power; and the third or mixed term, «Reason». The intelligible-intellectual sphere falling under the concept of life contains, according to Proclus, feminine divinities, and is subdivided into the following triads: One, Other, Being, the triad of original numbers; One and Many, Whole and Part, Limitation and Illimitation, the triad of gods who hold together; and the triad of «perfecting Gods». The intellectual essences, lastly, falling under the concept of reason are arranged according to the number seven, the first two terms in the triad, or the terms which correspond respectively with Being and Life being subject to a threefold division, while the third term remains undivided»(2). The human soul, according to Proclus, does not commune with God immediately but mediately, through dæmons, or spirits next in rank above it. The union of each order of being with that next above is effected by love. Holding, as he did, that the soul is farther removed from God and in closer connection with matter than Plotinus had conceived it, Proclus rejected the Plotinic (Stoic) doctrine of apathy. The relation of the individual to the universal in the system of Proclus is mystical. The system is theological rather than philosophical in its aim.—As an illustration of his application of the «geometrical method,»—probably under the influence of Euclid—, we give the seventh Proposition in the «Elements of Theology»(3) with its demonstration. «Everything productive of another is more excellent than the nature of the thing produced: For it is either more excellent, or worse, or equal. Let it be, in the first place, equal. That which is produced from this, therefore, will itself also either possess a power productive of some other, or it will be entirely barren. But if it be barren, it will on this account be worse than its producing cause: and because of its inefficacy it will be unequal to that which is prolific and possesses a productive power. But if it be productive of other natures, it will either produce that which is equal to itself (and this will be the case in all things, and all things will be equal to each other and nothing will be more excellent than another, since the productive nature always constitutes the thing produced equal to itself) or that which is unequal. But in this case, it will not be equal to its producing cause; for it is the property of equal powers to fabricate equal effects. But the productions of these are unequal to each other, since in this hypothesis the producing cause is equal to that which is prior to itself. It is requisite, therefore, that the thing produced should not be equal to its producing cause. But neither can the producing cause be ever worse than the thing produced. For if the producing cause confers essence on the thing produced, it bestows power also, according to essence. And if it is productive of all the power which that posterior to itself possesses, it can also make itself such as its production. But if it can do this, it will also make itself more powerful; for impotence cannot hinder, since a fabricative power is present, nor defect of will. For all things naturally desire good. Hence if it can form anything else more perfect, it will also perfect itself before it perfects that which is posterior to itself. The thing produced, therefore, is neither equal to nor more excellent than its producing cause, and hence the producing cause is entirely more excellent than the nature of the thing produced».


Neo-Platonism was the last of the schools of Greek philosophy. Notwithstanding the opposition of its leaders to Christianity, this school by its attempt to unite philosophy and religion and by the encouragement it gave to popular super-naturalism was the point of transition from pure ancient Greek pagan speculation to Christian Theology. It had a large influence on the Church in the Middle Ages.


(1) See Ritter and Ueberweg.

(2) Ueberweg, Vol. I. p.258.

(3) Translated by Thomas Taylor.