Helen S. Lang, A. D. Marco, Proclus: On the Eternity of the World (de
Aeternitate Mundi). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Pp. 189. ISBN 0-520-22554-6. $50.00.
Reviewed by Dirk Baltzly, School of Philosophy and Bioethics, Monash
University, Melbourne, Australia (Dirk.Baltzly@...
Word count: 1705 words
Within the Anglo-American philosophical community, late antiquity is
currently hot. The series of translations of the ancient commentators
on Aristotle, coordinated by Richard Sorabji, is one source of this new
interest. However, within the past few years, more and more attention
has been focused on the philosophy of Proclus and on his commentaries
on Plato's works. The present volume brings these two important strands
in late antique philosophy together.
The pagan Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus (410-85) composed a treatise
presenting 18 arguments for the eternity of the world. This work is now
lost to us. However, it was the subject of a detailed attempt at
refutation by the Christian Neoplatonist John Philoponus (c. 490-570)
in his work De Aeternitate Mundi contra Proclum.[] In his treatise,
Philoponus states each of Proclus' 18 arguments before going on to try
to refute each one individually. Our manuscript of Philoponus'
refutation is missing the first argument, but it is preserved in an
Lang and Marco (hereafter L/M) assemble and edit the Greek text from
Philoponus and provide translation and commentary. The Arabic text of
the missing first argument is included as an appendix with a
translation by Jon McGinnis. L/M also include as another appendix the
Latin translation of the 18 Proclean arguments within Philoponus'
Contra Proclum as they appear in the the 16th century translation by
Gaspare Marcello Montagnese. In addition, there is a 37 page
introduction, an index of Greek words and an index nominum.
The introduction is divided into four parts. In the first part, L/M
argue against the view that Proclus' De Aet. should be seen primarily
as an anti-Christian treatise. The work actually belongs in the context
of disagreements between Platonists about the proper interpretation of
the Timaeus. Accordingly, the second section of the introduction
provides a very brief account of the Academy, and in particular the
tradition of commentary on the Timaeus begun by Crantor. The third
section discusses the interpretation that Plutarch and Atticus provide
of the Timaeus. According to Plutarch, Plato's dialogue describes the
temporal creation of the cosmos and the soul. L/M argue that it is this
sort of Platonism -- not Christianity -- that is the main target of
Proclus' arguments. The final section of the introduction discusses the
text and translation. L/M have some comments on the difficulties of
articular infinitives in Proclus, as well as the problems presented by
the modal force, or lack thereof, in agene^tos and aphthartos.
This volume is very elegant in its layout. L/M provide a synopsis of
each argument on the right hand page immediately prior to the
translation. One turns the page to find the Greek text on the left,
critical apparatus at the bottom, the translation on the right, and the
commentary on the translation as endnotes appended to each section.
Since many of the arguments are no more than a page in length, these
endnotes are typically no more than a page away from where one is
Anyone working in the area of late antique philosophy will want to own
this book. The translation is clear and very readable. The text is
conservative. L/M reject a few of Rabe's additions and supply a few of
their own, typically either on the basis of what Philoponus says or
from the passages of Plato that Proclus is discussing. The commentary
deals with a number of difficult technical terms in Neoplatonist
philosophy. L/M note in their introduction that there are strong
affinities with Proclus' Elements of Theology and his views on method
expressed in the commentary on Euclid Book I. So the commentary is
particularly strong on locating premises that Proclus' arguments in De
Aet deploy within the Elements. There are also ample references to the
texts of Plato and Aristotle since Proclus writes for an audience that
he simply assumes will hear an echo of, say, a particular Phaedrus
passage as such and see the significance of such an allusion.
Philosophers whose interests are not quite so scholarly will also
benefit from this book. One could organise a very nice advanced seminar
on the theme of the eternity of the world in ancient philosophy,
beginning from Aristotle's texts, then working through L/M's
translation of Proclus and Wildberg's translation of Philoponus'
Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World.[] Nonetheless, we
still await the final member of this hat trick on the eternity of the
world: a translation of Philoponus' Contra Proclum is in preparation
for Sorabji's Ancient Commentators series.
In the remainder of this review, I will take up a few of the themes
discussed in L/M's introduction. There are a couple of points raised
where I agree with the conclusions, but not with the arguments by means
of which the conclusions are reached. Let no one infer that I suppose
that this is anything other than a very good book. You will certainly
want to buy copies for all the scholars of late antiquity on your
The first point concerns the purpose of Proclus' work. As noted, nearly
all our evidence of the text of Proclus' work on the eternity of the
world comes from Philoponus' attempt to refute it. Since Philoponus was
a Christian, it is easy and natural to assume that he was motivated in
part by his religious views to attack the thesis of the world's
eternity. It is also easy to assume that Proclus' purpose in writing De
Aet. was similar. He wanted to present philosophical objections to a
central tenet of Christian thought. For this reason, De Aet. is
frequently given the subtitle 'Against the Christians'. But L/M argue
in their introduction that we should not rush to judgment in either
case. The evidence for the impact of Philoponus' Christianity on his
philosophical writings is very slender. In Proclus' case, even if we
agree with the idea that he has 'coded words' for reference to
Christianity, only one of the candidate code words appears in De Aet.,
and it is more likely to refer to Platonists such as Plutarch and
Atticus who suppose that Plato presents a literal creation story.[]
L/M suggest that we should perhaps see Philoponus as a Christian
philosopher more like Boethius than Augustine. They bolster their case
for seeing the disagreement between Proclus and Philoponus by
summarising one of Philoponus' responses to Proclus. In it, Philoponus
argues that Proclus' own conception of the self-constituted (to
authupstaton) should lead him to conclude that an eternally existing
world would have the sort of reality appropriate only to its
intelligible paradigm. That is, Philoponus objects to Proclus using
stock Neoplatonist notions and attempts to beat him at his own game.
I think L/M should consider how much such an argument shows. If
Philoponus proposes to really refute Proclus' arguments on the eternity
of the world, he must engage with those arguments on the basis of
premises that Proclus himself would have to accept. Thus it should come
as no surprise that Philoponus attempts to turn Proclus' own notion of
the self-constituted against him. He does the same thing with
Aristotle's notion of the infinite as the indefinitely extendable
finite in his work Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World. This
methodology does not in itself show that it is necessary to think of
the exchange between the two Neoplatonists as an internal affair,
having no bearing on pagan and Christian conflicts. (It is to be hoped
that this subject will be discussed at length in the introduction to
the translation of Philoponus' Contra Proclum currently in preparation
in Sorabji's Commentators series.) In any event, it seems to me that
L/M are on much firmer ground when they point out how little positive
evidence there is for the view that Proclus' De Aet. is an
anti-Christian polemic. I am thus in broad agreement with their
conclusion, even if I find one of the arguments for that conclusion not
Finally allow me to offer an observation on L/M's discussion of the
problems of agene^tos as 'ungenerated' or 'ungenerable'. L/M suppose
that a contradiction would appear in many contexts if we translated
'ungenerable' rather than 'ungenerated', for Proclus insists that the
Demiurge eternally generates the cosmos. Thus, to regard it as the kind
of thing that can have no beginning, and also to describe the
Demiurge's activity as Proclus does, would involve a contradiction.
But the appearance of contradiction goes away as soon as one recognises
that there are different kinds of generation. The cosmos cannot have
the kind of generation that we mortals provide to the various objects
we make, but it can have a different kind of generation. This is the
point of the distinction that Proclus draws at in Tim. I. 277,14-34.
There Proclus says that Plato uses the word 'generated' or 'generable'
with reference to the cosmos in such a way as to make it a middle term.
The cosmos is generated 'in a certain respect'. This is between the
intelligibles (which are haplo^s aei) and the way in which the term
must be used in reference to sensible things (which are haplo^s
geno^ton). The moral to be drawn from this, I think, is that there are
very few constraints on how one must translate any theoretical term in
Neoplatonism. Here, as in any moderately complex theory, the meaning
that terms have is often a function of the roles that they play in
relation to other theoretical terms. The only rule that is worth
following is the one that says: assume that a philosopher is trying to
offer an argument that will make sense and translate accordingly. This,
it seems to me, is exactly what L/M do in practice. I only wish to
register a small complaint that in their introduction they may be
seeing an interpretive problem where there really isn't one -- or at
least not a very big one.
Let me emphasize that these are very tiny caveats. I am more or less
convinced of their conclusion that Proclus' treatise is not primarily
intended as anti-Christian polemic. Moreover, I think that their
translation of agene^tos as 'ungenerated' is just fine. Nonetheless, it
seems to me that they have sometimes overplayed their hand ever so
slightly in some of their arguments for these conclusions.
1. Philoponus, De Aeternite Mundi contra Proclum, ed. H. Rabe
(Leipzig: Teubner, 1899).
2. Philoponus, Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World, trans.
C. Wildberg (London: Duckworth, 1987).
3. For such coded references to Christians, see H. D. Saffrey,
'Allusions antichre/tiennes chez Proclus: Le Diadoque Platonicien',
Revue des sciences philosophiques et the/oloiques 59 (1979), 553-63.
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