Proclus Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek philosopher Proclus is known for his detailed systematization of the various theological and philosophical doctrines that he inherited from his predecessors and for his immense commentaries on the works of Plato, which consumed most of his activity.

Early Life

Proclus (PROH-kluhs) was born of patrician Lycian parents from the city of Xanthus. They wanted him to be educated in their city; thus, he was sent to Xanthus at a very early age. Later, he went to Alexandria to study rhetoric and Roman law in order to follow his father’s profession, law. He soon became interested in philosophy and abandoned the study of law, choosing instead to attend lectures on mathematics and the philosophy of Aristotle. About the age of twenty, he went to Athens and studied under the Athenian Plutarch and his successor, Syrianus, at the Academy, the Athenian school that traced its ancestry to Plato’s Academy. There, he continued his study of Aristotle and was introduced to Plato’s philosophy and to mystical theology, to which he became a devotee. Proclus was such an intense, diligent student, with extraordinary powers of comprehension and memory, that by the age of twenty he had read the whole of Aristotle’s De anima (348-336 b.c.e.; On the Soul, 1812) and Plato’s Phaedros (399-390 b.c.e.; Phaedrus, 1792), and by twenty-eight he had written several treatises as well as his commentary on Plato’s Timaeos (360-347 b.c.e.; Timeaus, 1793).

Although a devoted disciple of Platonic thought, which he considered his main influence and inspiration, Proclus was a great enthusiast of all sorts of religious practices, beliefs, and superstitions and a champion of pagan worship against Christian Imperial policy. He practiced all the Orphic and Chaldean rites of purification religiously, was a celibate, pursued a strict vegetarian diet, observed the fasts and vigils for the sacred days (more than was customary), devoutly revered the sun and moon, faithfully observed all the Egyptian holy days, and spent part of each night in prayer and in performing sacrifices. He believed that he was in complete possession of the theurgic knowledge, that he was divinely inspired, and that he was a reincarnation of the neo-Pythagorean Nichomachus. Through the practice of theurgy, a type of ritual magic, it is claimed that he caused rainfall in a time of drought, prevented an earthquake, and was able to persuade the god Asclepius to cure the daughter of his friend Archiadas. Proclus had a vast and comprehensive knowledge of philosophy, mythology, religious practices, and cults, and he attempted to harmonize all these elements into a comprehensive system.

Marinus, his biographer, who was also his pupil and successor, describes Proclus as having lived the perfect life of a philosopher, a model of all the virtues, both social and intellectual, the life of a divine man. His only shortcomings were a quick temper and a fiercely competitive nature. On the death of Syrianus, Proclus succeeded him as the head of the Academy. Because of his position as the head of the Academy and his devotion to Platonic thought, he has often been called “diadoches,” or successor of Plato.

Life’s Work

Proclus believed that his philosophy was a further and necessary development of Plato’s thought. In reality, his views are a systematization of those found in other Neoplatonists’ interpretations of Plotinian thought, and most can be traced to the teachings of Iamblichus, a follower of Plotinus. Of the many works that Proclus wrote, the most important and the one that best displays his schematization of Neoplatonic thought is Stoikheiōsis theologikē (The Elements of Theology, 1933). This work is basically a doctrine of categories. It consists of a series of 211 propositions with deductive proofs. Each succeeding proposition follows on the basis of the preceding one, following the Euclidean procedure in geometry.

At the head of Proclus’s system is the One, the ultimate First Principle existing beyond being and knowledge, ineffable and incomprehensible. Proclus often identifies God with the First Principle or One. From the One emanates or radiates innumerable lesser independent realities, reflecting the multiplicity of the world order, which strive to return to union with it. Unlike Plotinus, who held that the process of emanation was continuous and equal in degree, Proclus believed that all things emanate by triads and return to the One by triads. Every emanation is less than that from which it evolves but has a similarity or partial identity to its cause. In its emergence from its cause, the derived is also different. However, because of its relation to and dependence on its cause, it attempts to imitate its cause on a lower plane and return to and unite itself with it. It is only through the intermediate existences in triadic aspects that an existence can return to the highest reality, the One.

Although not original with him, Proclus was the first to emphasize and apply throughout his system the principle of universal sympathy, the view that everything is in everything else, each according to its proper nature. According to this, every reality in the...

(The entire section is 2152 words.)