Proclus: Neo-Platonic Philosophy and Science (review)

Journal of the History of Philosophy 37 (1):160-162 (1999)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Reviewed by:Proclus: Neo-Platonic Philosophy and Science by Lucas SiorvanesP.A. MeijerLucas Siorvanes. Proclus: Neo-Platonic Philosophy and Science. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. Pp. xv+ 340. Cloth, $35.00.This book will be welcomed by scholars of Proclus and by readers unfamiliar with Proclus alike. There are not many introductory books on Proclus. And Siorvanes presents in an interesting way the latest developments in scholarship. [End Page 160]Siorvanes gives an account of Proclus’s life and times, his position in the Athenian Neoplatonic school, and his influence and offers a panoramic view of Proclus’s philosophy in the chapters: “General Metaphysics,” “Knowledge and the levels of Being,” “Physics and Metaphysics,” and “Stars and Planets.” He presents not only Proclus’s views on physics and astronomy, but also his poetics (189).Siorvanes deals competently with Proclus’s metaphysics, analyzing it in its own right and as the indispensable background of his scientific views. His summaries are on the whole adequate and instructive. But a scheme or outline of levels of the multi-layered Proclean system of Gods (Henads), such as that offered by H. D. Saffrey and L. G. Westerink in Proclus, Théologie Platonicienne (Paris 1968) for example, would have facilitated understanding.In an impressive description of Proclus’s historical influence, Siorvanes establishes connections between Proclus’s ideas and modern views in metaphysics, mathematics, physics, logic and astronomy. Yet a warning would be appropriate in this context. There is, for instance, the strikingly modern Proclean theory that planets have satellites. Perhaps Siorvanes is too much enamoured with these modern Proclean theories. Though he recognizes that the theory about the satellites is really a consequence of Proclus’s metaphysics (268–271), he fails to emphasize that Proclus’s modern-seeming theories are no less speculative than other ancient theories. Neither Proclus’s metaphysics nor his mathematics can replace evidence as used in modern science. Thus, the rather triumphal tones Sioravanes sounds in this regard are somewhat out of place. The incidental similarities in theoretical structures and patterns that emerge in the course of history are interesting to note, but we should beware of becoming too enthusiastic about their significance. The so-called indirect influence may be due precisely to the structure of problems and the (limited) range of possible solutions.I would raise some objections to Siorvanes’s manner of translating and interpreting the Greek word for “to be” (einai) or “Being” (on). As is often done, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, Siorvanes alternatively uses “being,” “existence” and “reality,” without being aware of the fact that in ancient philosophy the Greek words “on/ousia” (“Being”) generally do not admit of the translation “existence.” Such translations are anachronistic and wrong. “Reality” is entirely inappropriate as a translation. As an essentially medieval expression, the word “reality” (realitas) as such is nowhere to be found in antiquity. When Proclus presents his multilevel system of Being, there are no degrees of reality in the sense that one transcendent level is more real than another. There are only degrees of Being. The problematic nature of the issue stands out even more when one speaks about not being. “Being” interpreted as “reality” suggests that what is not being, has no reality. But that is not what Proclus meant to say. The translation “existence” is bound to bring about similar misunderstandings. The notion “existence” is seldom in the focus of the interest when an ancient philosopher uses “einai.” Thus, an innocent reader of Siorvanes’s book may despair when he encounters “real existence” as a translation for “ousia” (124). Do the levels of being other than the one called “ousia” exist or do they not exist? If they do not, Proclus’s entire philosophy would be incoherent, and our world would not even exist or possess “reality.” But this is not what Proclus or Siorvanes mean. To avoid misunderstandings, we should use only “Being” (and “to be”) as translations. [End Page 161]There are also problems with some aspects of Siorvanes’s description of participation. In picturing the connection of the entity that is participated (methekton), what is given to the participant (metechomenon) and the participant (metechon), the terms “predication” and...



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