Opusculum philosophica: Proclus
An examination of the lives and teachings of three philosophers; part three: Proclus
In this new investigation in three parts we have examined the lives and teachings of three prominent philosophers who flourished during the early centuries of the Christian era. In part one we discussed the life and teachings of Philo, in part two the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, and in this final part we conclude our investigation with a review of the life and teachings of the last major Neoplatonist, Proclus. If you have not read parts one and two, now is the time to do so, as these three articles comprise a complete revelation which cannot be understood by skimming through them or reading them out of sequence.
The Hymns of Proclus
As we mention in our afterword, it was under the tuition of Syrianus that Proclus first came into contact with what remained of the ancient Egyptian Mystery Teachings in his time. Just how much he was influenced by them it is hard to say, but there are sufficient clues in his writings to believe it was not inconsiderable. The best examples of this influence are to be found in his many fine hymns, such as his Hymn to the Sun, which begins:
"Listen, King of the Intelligible Fire, holder of the golden Flame;
Listen Dispenser of Light, who holdest the keys of the bounteous Fountain of Life!
Thou whose dwelling place is within the golden Glitter of thy House,
Whose abundant flow rushes down the Armenian peak of the royal Ararat!
Listen, thou who broodest above the Aether's middle realm,
Thou who inhabitest the refulgent sphere of the heart of the world,
Thou who fillest all things by thy arousing Providence!
Lit by thy fiery rays, the cycling planets perpetually flourish,
And in unresting and weariless circuits
Distil prolific germs, shedding them on all terrestrial beings!"
The diligent reader who takes the time and trouble to compare this to the many versions of the Hymn to Ra to be found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead will be left in no doubt from whence Proclus obtained his inspiration. Almost every line is based directly on ancient Egyptian lore, showing that thousands of years ago the Ancients were well aware of the true functions of the Sun or 'King of the Intelligible Fire', as Proclus rightly called our parent star. Towards the end of the Hymn Proclus prays that the Sun (or Ra) will grant him health, fame, knowledge of the great Laws, inspiration by way of the Muses, and "indestructible riches." The two last words show that he was well aware of the transient nature of all Earthly fortune, which may be lost or destroyed in the twinkling of an eye. The last three lines form a beautiful end to this remarkable Hymn, when Proclus asks of the Sun-God:
"And if from the Fates' dread spindles evil should threaten me,
And the stars, in their cycles, should bode evil,
Then, Oh Lord of the Sun, Come thou to me thyself, and by thy powerful darts release me and all that suffer."
A Hymn which revives the ancient teachings about reincarnation is Proclus' address to the Muses.
"With hymns let us celebrate the lights of inspiration which show the Path to Heaven,
Shed forth by the nine sonorous Daughters of the Supreme who sing unto the souls of those who have gone forth
To redeem those who have lost their way amidst the depths of Life,
From unseen sorrows, results of ignorance, and in their loving pity
Teach them to hasten to follow the Path that leads away and upward from the dreadful depths of dire oblivion,
Aiding them to return still pure unto their native starry world
Whence they had come; when rushing into the childbirth bed,
Intoxicated with the fumes of material pleasure."
The 'nine sonorous Daughters' are a poetical allusion to our Guardian Angels whom we mention in our afterword. Those holy beings who try at all times to save us from the destruction which awaits those who, rejecting the path to the Light, turn to the darkness. They may also refer in a concealed manner to the nine planets of our Solar System, but this is conjecture on our part and we do not know if Proclus was aware of the existence of the planets which are known to us, though they were certainly known to the ancient Egyptians. So here, clothed in Proclus' own poetical words, we find the ancient teaching that the souls of men and women come from a higher, spiritual realm, to which they must return with minds purified through experience and suffering on Earth, leading to wisdom and Salvation in the end. From this hymn it is clear that Proclus knew all this, just as it is clear he knew about the lower mind or self, as the following extract from another hymn shows:
"Listen, Divinities, you who hold the reins of sacred Wisdom.
Let me learn of the innocent, blameless Light that dissipates the clouds,
That I may discover the truth about Man, and the immortal Divinity!
"Neither let the Evil-working Spirit restrain me beneath the Lethean Waters of Oblivion,
For ever far from the Blessed; for my soul
Desires no more to stray from Truth,
Nor suffer the cruel pains of imprisonment in the fetters of earthly life!
Nay, Gods of high and illustrious Wisdom,
Masters and Leaders, hear me, who longs to hasten
Along the Upward Way!
Initiate me into the orgiac mysteries,
And reveal them unto me by the ceremonies of sacred words!"
The identity of the 'Evil-working Spirit' which 'restrains' the aspirations of the Higher Self couldn't be clearer once we know that we all have two minds, each of which pull us in different directions.
The remains of the ancient Agora or meeting place in Athens where Proclus gave public lectures
The Chaldean Oracles
One of the works of Proclus deals with parts of the Chaldean Oracles to which he was introduced by his teacher Syrianus. These contain some important fragments which are well worth discussing. According to Proclus' interpretation there were three Principal Orders in the Chaldean belief system. These were:
- The Eternal Orders which consist of the Temples and Habitations of the Gods themselves.
- The Paternal Order, which is the universally receptive Temple of the Father, which receives and unites all ascending souls (Higher Minds in our terminology).
- The Angelic Order.
The members of the Angelic Order have the duty to lead souls to the celestial regions. These Angels were supposed to do this by enveloping the ascending being they were leading in light, while at the same time imparting to him or her tranquil and immutable order and power, withdrawing from material disorder, and transfiguring these souls, or beings, with the Light of Divine ordinances. This light also serves to retain the being within the divine sphere, that is to say: within the sphere where it belongs by nature and inward evolution. It is then purged from admixture with matter on account of the fervour imparted to it by means of its further angelic, progressive, or ascending existence within these spheres or realms. For what the Chaldeans called "the heating of the spirit" imparts life to the risen being. Thus the Self is elevated by hastening into the celestial region, whereas by downward gravitation it is carried into matter, which is the region of generation. The real aim of the Self is to ascend, and in doing so to become worthy to participate in the divine fruits, and to become filled with that fire of the highest nature, which, helping to place it into the presence of the Father, produces perfect contemplation of God. Although all this is stated in different terms it agrees with the scheme of evolution and transmutation explored and explained in our Occult Studies Course, as well as in such books as The Golden Star and The Secret Doctrine.
Here we must sound a note of caution to those who seek to read the books of Proclus but fail to find the explanations we give in them, such as the simple, yet profound key that 'Soul' equals Higher Mind. In connection with this warning we now come to a point in the Chaldean Oracles where our Philosopher proclaims: "The body is the root of evil, just as intellect is the root of virtue." If we know that 'intellect' in this context means the Higher Mind, there isn't much wrong with this statement—on the surface. But as we have continually emphasized throughout this investigation, we need to go beyond the superficial or obvious if we wish to sift the true from the untrue and the nearly-true from half-truths in the writings of the three philosophers under discussion. So, let us say at once that the body, made by God, is never the root of evil, for it is filled with virtue and is a temple of loveliness when pure and undefiled by the lower intellect which, with the aid of the bodily senses, can turn the temple into a filthy slum.
The root of evil lies in the lower mind, not in the body. Intellect in the sense we are now using it belongs to the lower mind, and not to the Higher, as we pointed out long ago in the sixth part of our Occult Studies Course. We have to be very careful to distinguish the two kinds of intellect—one belonging to the Higher Mind and the other to the lower. Intellect is a term that crops up frequently in the writings of many philosophers but is invariably misconstrued for the reasons just given. In most cases the writers who use it so blithely, do not know anything at all about the two minds and the differences between them. Consequently they fall into the gravest errors, not knowing that the lower intellect is the snare which may lead the intuition of the Higher Mind, inspired by the Soul, astray. From this it will be clear to you that when Proclus uses the word in the passage just quoted, he means the Intuition of the Higher Mind, not the intellect of the lower. It must also be clear that Proclus, wise as he was, did not know the true functions of intellect and intuition, nor their sources, or he would have expressed himself differently. It follows that Intuition may be called the 'intellect' of the Higher Mind, which alone can understand Wisdom if sufficiently free from the lower mind and all its snares. Proclus affirms this when he adds: "Virtue blossoms for the souls in the celestial regions, whilst in the region of matter [the Earth], evil comes to the souls from the Worse." By the worse he means the hells so vividly and truly depicted in Symphonie Fantastique.
Proclus then says, almost correctly: "Our body is a part of generation, or the sphere of time and sense, but the other part, the soul [Higher Self], is able to act independently of the power of generation, but may not destroy it entirely, without destroying its own being or essence. We must, therefore, merely reject the envy and jealousy into the material sphere whence the soul originally drew them, for matter is the nurse of these material things." The reason we said this statement is almost correct is that the 'sphere of time and sense' applies equally to all the spheres above and below the Earth, as we have a body of some sort in them as we can read in The Golden Star. To destroy the body, by suicide, for this is what Proclus really means, does not destroy the Higher Mind as this is eternal. Nor does the 'soul' draw envy and jealousy into the material sphere; it is the lower mind which does this, which the Higher Mind is free to accept or reject. So we see that although Proclus is right in a sense, he is also wrong in a sense, and this is the danger of all such teachings, and the reason why we spend so much time discussing, analysing and correcting them for the benefit of our readers. We cannot emphasize the importance of this process of sifting and discriminating often enough.
It is a relief to find the next pronouncement of our philosopher to be correct! Here it is: "Now when we say 'restraining the mind's tendency to the Worse', or 'not entirely extinguishing them', we do not mean a mere temporary repression; for passions, when merely cooped up, heat up their container. So instead of 'restraining', which retains that which is damned up, let us eject the passions. That is the meaning of our Oracles: 'Defile not the Spirit through that which is hidden within'." The Chaldean Oracle here speaks truly and wisely, and we need add nothing to it, nor detract from it.
Doubts, definitions and distractions
From all we have discussed so far it will be clear that there were many doubts in the mind of Proclus; things he was unsure of or only partly understood, yet felt compelled to write about nonetheless. All this was due to insufficient knowledge on his part of the Full Laws and Principles of Occult Science, and of the true nature—also in full—of man in his threefold aspect of Soul, Higher Mind and lower mind. The reason being that this knowledge was lost when the last of the genuine Egyptian Mystery Schools closed nearly 2,000 years before Proclus encountered the distorted remnants of this Sublime Wisdom in Alexandria. The subject of Providence, as we shall now see, presented Proclus with his greatest difficulties. Indeed, he had no less than Ten Doubts about it and these comprise one of the most important parts of his philosophy. We covered some of this in our article on Fate versus Free-Will so will not repeat ourselves except to recommend you read the section on Providence in which we quote Proclus' ideas if you haven't already done so.
The first thing Proclus wants to know is whether Providence extends to all things. In order to discover this he first divides the intellect into six parts. He says there are two kinds of rational knowledge: opinion and science, the former (opinion) is mutable, knowing the nature of mutable natures, whilst science is the knowledge of things permanently immutable. We're sure we don't need to tell you that 'opinion' knows nothing whatsoever about anything worth knowing as a few moments on Twitter will quickly show, though it presumes to know about both mutable things and science. Science, on the other hand holds opinions which it drops like hot bricks when these become untenable. In other words, neither 'opinion' nor 'science' know the true nature of mutable or immutable things; for if they did, there would be no need to change their opinions or scientific theories.
So that disposes of the first two 'intellects.' Now Proclus goes on: "Higher than these, however, is another kind of knowledge, called Intellectual. Of this there are two kinds: that of our own intellect which cognizes one thing at a time, while the further one cognizes all things simultaneously and simply. While the former is that of our own partial intellects, the further one is the activity of an intellect perfect in every manner, transcending rational cognitions in this by understanding all things, having a total existence, and intellectually perceiving all things totally, while the other apprehends all things only partially, its intellections being partial because itself is such." All this can be reduced to just four words: lower and higher mind. But Proclus has not finished yet, for he adds: "Beyond these six kinds of knowledge towers Providence's knowledge which rises above intellect, and subsists exclusively in the One, according to which every God is essentialized, and is said to attend providentially to all things, establishing himself in an energy prior to intellectual perception. By this One, therefore, according to which also He subsists, He knows all things." Why not simply say God is all knowing? Proclus, like so many of his ilk must gild the lily of simple truth with the brush of distracting deviation and misleading embellishment; sure signs of the lower intellect at work!
Proclus' further discussions of his first doubt on Providence are long and involved and lead us nowhere except out of breath, so we shall pass them by, and deal with his second doubt about which he says: "Does Providence know things of a contingent nature? I think so. But the problem is serious enough for some of the ancients to have, in spite of acknowledgment of the existence of Providence, to have denied contingency to beings, while others, acknowledging the existence of the contingent, have denied that Providence reaches as far as them. Both of these opinions rightly presume the existence of Providence, that the thing known is definite to the knowing nature, and that the indefiniteness of the known arises from its own nature." Phew—what a lot of words. Have we said this before? Then it is worth repeating that many words do not make Wisdom. The word 'contingent' as Proclus employs it may mean admitting, denying, circumstances, situations, phases, positions, postures, attitudes, points, terms, juncture and conjuncture, and so on and so forth. It is an old and well worn trick, which, however, always works, and leaves all sorts of loopholes from which the user can escape from any predicament. Very useful to him, but not to his victim, or us! Hence this second doubt may mean anything or nothing; we favour the latter possibility!
Good and evil
We can safely pass over most of Proclus' third and fourth doubts as they contain nothing we have not previously discussed in our article on Fate versus Free-Will. But in the fifth doubt on Providence he asks: "How can one explain the presence of evil among us, on the assumption of the existence of Providence? Indeed, many who observe that evil extends to all things do not hesitate to deny Providence's existence; or, while admitting that Providence adorns all things, are compelled to deny the existence of evil, asserting that all beings, so far as they exist at all, are good, and that evil is nothing more than the good which is furthest removed from primary natures. On such a definition the objection falls, as there would be left no more evil to antagonize Providence. If, however, some such opposition is left, we are compelled to explain its origin. For we could not admit that such evil proceeded from Providence, which is the source of all good; so it would have to be derived from some other cause; which again we would have to reduce to dependence on Providence. But beings which originate from causes which also owe their existence to Providence must be confessed also to proceed from Providence. If however this evil cause arose independently of Providence, then we would arrive at a dualism of causes of good and evil, and Providence will have lost a supremacy, having a rival or opponent."
Oh dear——what a trap all this is for the unwary! How is Proclus going to extricate himself from this metaphysical minefield? His answer may surprise you: "What we then just do is to admit the existence of evil, but in such a manner as not to interfere with the supremacy of Providence." This is a very clever piece of casuistry worthy of a Jesuit, but is it true and does it solve the problem? Let us see what our philosopher says next. "To begin with we must distinguish between evil in bodies, which is preternatural, and evil in souls, which deviates from reason. Now that which is preternatural does not subsist in all bodies, nor in souls that rank as wholes. Now we must study the bodies in which, or whom, by Providential permission, evil exists. Now it is obvious that what is preternatural exists solely in corruptible bodies; and since the preternatural is the path leading to non-existence, that which is not susceptible of the preternatural is perpetual. But everything which is corrupted exists among beings, and ranks among beings either on account of some other cause, or in order that the universe may not be imperfect, and that primary natures might not be the last of the totality of existences. For primary natures are eternal, and adaptable to their cause. Therefore, if evil exists, it exists only in that which is corruptible; which exists only that the eternal things may not be the only ones; and this again in order that the universe may be perfect. Hence evil would subsist only on account of that Providence which energises the world, and that Providence may be entirely what it is, by causing the world to be perfect."
We have given you the whole of this long quotation because it is one of the most extraordinary discussions on Good and evil we have ever come across. It is true that among Brahmanical writings we find somewhat similar ideas, but Proclus goes even farther than the most pedantic of Brahmans, tying himself in so many knots that even Houdini could not escape the trap he has made for himself. This is a perfect example of what happens when we allow the lower mind to philosophize upon questions it is constitutionally incapable of understanding, never mind answering. To say that evil only exists in the corruptible, and the reason for the existence of the corruptible is that the eternal things may not be the only ones is so utterly childish that it makes one blush with embarrassment that these are the words of a man who is considered to be one of the greatest thinkers of all time! Still—there it is, the words stand and cannot be made away with. Let us see if something—anything true—can be salvaged from this mess of misunderstanding and misstatements.
Proclus continues: "The goal of this evil would then be good; since it was on account of good that evil was introduced among beings, as contributing something necessary to the totality of existences." So far so good, for we learn by adversity, if we are sufficiently awake and aware of the reasons for it. But then he once more goes astray by confounding the two principles. Good cannot come out of evil, nor evil out of good; the two cannot be mixed in the manner Proclus seems to suggest. Good can influence evil, thus transferring something of itself to the being who needs it. Similarly, evil can influence good, if good permits it. But that is not mingling, for as the goal of evil cannot be good, as Proclus says, neither can the goal of good be evil, as he does not say. Though it would be logical and true if he had come to that conclusion, so affirming the Hermetic Law 'As above, so below,' which he clearly did not know, notwithstanding his studies among the Egyptians of Alexandria.
For these reasons Proclus' ideas on Good and evil fall to the ground, paralysed by their own incompetence to know the true Laws of Occult Science. Not that this was his fault, for he tried very hard to find Truth, but fell victim to erroneous reasoning, based on the false premises of his own lower mind. We must therefore pass by the rest of his themes and theses, for they do not help us to find Truth. But they help us in another way, for by means of the errors and omissions we have drawn your attention to, we realise the beauty and splendour of Truth in the highest sense. Another example of Proclus' wrong ideas is his statement that: "Now, of opposites, one must be better, and the other worse." Why, in the name of sanity, could he utter such an untruth? Opposites can both be good, like heat and cold, or wet and dry, or even male and female, none of which are better or worse than the other, each being the positive and negative powers of nature for instance; or the opposite, or reverse if you like, sides of a coin. So can two persons of entirely opposite natures both be good, for there are all kinds and degrees of good, just as there are all kinds and degrees of evil.
Crime and Punishment
We covered the sixth and seventh of Proclus' doubts on the inequality of humans and animals in our aforementioned article on Fate and Fortune, so will now consider his eighth point. He begins by saying that many people object to the existence of Providence because crime is not always punished at once. For, he says, correction is far more efficient if the punishment is immediate, and not delayed for such a long time that the actual crime has almost, or quite, been forgotten. He believes that Providence deliberately delays punishment at times in order to make it more severely felt by the criminal. This induces what he calls soul-health which will instruct many by endurance. There is a great deal of truth in this as you will agree. Proclus sums up the matter by saying that "though to our feeble vision the delay of punishment may seem long, to the eye of Providence it is but a trifle; just as this our terrestrial corporeal abode seems too limited for the punishment of great offences; but the infernal regions contain many and indescribable places of torment, and tortures. Nay, the very magnitude of the punishments may compel them to be administered in instalments." This too is quite true as we may read in Symphonie Fantastique and the NDE of the medieval monk Drithelm.
Doubt nine also deals with punishments; Proclus asks: "How can the crime of other persons, such as parents or ancestors, be visited on their posterity?" Now we enter the realms of superstition and wrong belief, for he goes on: "The occurrence of this has been manifested by both revelations and mysteries, and certain gods are said to liberate one therefrom." What he had in mind when he wrote this, or whether he merely repeated what others before him believed we cannot say. But his whole reasoning is out of all order and proportion. Firstly, the only ways a child can suffer for the misdeeds of his parents or forbears is in the way of bodily or mental health caused by genetic inheritance, and in the way of misfortune. He is, however, not 'punished'; he merely suffers from the results set up by previous causes. Some call this Karma; maybe it is if we consider it in the right way. But his Karma is not caused by his parents or other forbears so that he suffers for their misdeeds, but by his own errors in a previous life. This, then, would be one of the delayed punishments of which Proclus speaks without saying so or attaching the same meaning to the effects of the said causes. Nor is this any sort of predestination or interference with our freedom on the part of Providence, but the result of our own acts of the past, which acts we enacted of our own free will, though now we have forgotten all about them. But life does not forget, nor does mind forget, for it is possible, as Seán Mac Gréine recounts in his short story of a past life lived in Nineveh, to recall previous incarnations, or parts of them. So Point nine also falls to the ground and we come, at last, to Proclus' tenth and final doubt which, once again, deals mainly with Good and evil. As it contains nothing new, we may safely pass it by.
It may seem that we have been a bit hard on poor old Proclus, but as we said in the first of our articles on Hermes, our aim is to help our loyal readers distinguish between Truth and falsehood and between half-truths and outright fantasy. This we have endeavoured to do to the best of our ability by carefully comparing the statements of Proclus with the complete Wisdom of Occult Science found in such books as The Golden Star and The Secret Doctrine. It is inevitable that there must be some lucky hits, or fragments of truth left over from much earlier writings in his teachings, such as those of ancient Egypt and India, and where these occur we have drawn your attention to them. But that does not turn the whole of his teachings into paragons of perfection or make of him an oracle of infallibility as some have claimed and still claim today. Nonetheless, the truths Proclus did espouse are worthy of the deepest study, and this is the reason why, not just in this part, but throughout this investigation, we have taken the time and trouble to examine the ideas of our three philosophers in some depth.
© Copyright occult-mysteries.org. Article published 21 November 2021.