The popular view of Neoplatonism is that it traffics in ineffables, yet Neoplatonism asserts that the cosmos is intelligible. A philosophy contending that absolutely everything is directly amenable to human understanding is actually extremely hands-on.
Take The One, for instance, the highest and most utterly transcendent principle of the Platonic system. Is The One effing about ineffably in some misty, removed dimension?
No. Because not only is The One the highest transcendent principle, it’s also the most prevalent and busy. Everything has to be ‘one’ or unified in order to have existence. Even the most transient of sub-atomic particles becomes one, for the tiniest fraction of a moment.
Yet isn’t this mere tautology? Isn’t The One merely a projection of the workings of the human mind or language onto material reality?
No. Because material reality itself manifestly creates unities. We have only to look around to see how the principle of Unity physically precedes existence and intelligibility – in our minds, yes, for sure, but also in material reality (which is what our culture traditionally places in opposition to mind). Things come into existence by becoming one, and once they are unified they become intelligible.
The One is everywhere and active, because everything has to participate in the nature of the One in order to exist. The subsequently derived ideals of Unity, Goodness and Beauty, therefore, are not to be discovered only in some transcendent realm or altered state; they are always and everywhere in the material world, because material things participate in their nature.
Platonic philosophers express differing views, of course. In Proclus (412-485 AD) we have the last great expression of the Neoplatonic tradition. Plato (428-347 BC) and Plotinus (205-270 AD) were in some respects quite open-ended in their approach, whereas Proclus seems to have been the sort of thinker who always felt compelled utterly to nail things down.
In Proclus’s day, Hellenism was in a terminal decline as Christianity took an ever greater hold. There had always been a degree of uncertainty over how the Hellenistic gods fitted with the Platonic cosmology. The gods presumably were not aspects of The One, else The One could not be unified, but if the gods did not abide at this supreme level, in what sense were they ‘divine’?
The solution that Proclus offered was possible, in part, because his views on matter were less critical than those of his predecessors. For Plotinus, in contrast, material reality is the level on which things become hopelessly screwed up. When the soul manifests in a physical body it is, according to Plotinus: ‘A thing fallen, chained, at first barred off from intelligence and living only by sensation… in a tomb or cavern pent’ (O’Brien 1964: 66).
Proclus, in contrast, was sensitive to a subtle paradox in the Platonic cosmology. Human existence is subject to a whole chain of cosmic causes, which includes The One, Intelligence, Soul and matter. Yet matter itself is not produced from participation in the middle terms of this chain.
In other words: human experience participates in Soul, which itself arises from participation in Intelligence, which in turn arises from participation in The One, yet matter does not require either Soul or Intelligence in order to be matter. Therefore, although matter is furthest in nature from The One, in another respect it remains close, in the sense that matter participates only in The One (i.e. it is unified), albeit to a much weaker extent than Intelligence and Soul. (See Balboa 2008: propositions 59 and 72.)
This idea, that matter need not be viewed as cut off from transcendent levels of being but, in its simplicity, that it still relates to the highest level of all, is what enabled Proclus to find a home for the gods – not on any particular level of reality, but on all of them.
Each level of reality is an image of the level above and preceding it. Thus, Intelligence (what we might describe as ‘Universal Impersonal Consciousness’) is but a pale image of the indescribably empty, concept-free and transcendent One. Likewise, Soul (which we might label ‘Qualitative Awareness’) is but a pale image of content-less Intelligence. The One is the ultimate nature of reality, and so, because each level is an image of this ultimate reality, each level has within it an image of The One, progressively more distorted as it descends.
Beneath The One, unity can be expressed only by multiplicity – i.e. only as qualities or natures separate from their possessor. The principle of unity finds expression on lower levels in a degraded image of itself: the principle of individuality. This is where Proclus situates the gods: ‘The Distinctive Character of Every Divine Order Constantly Traverses through All Secondary Natures, and Bestows Itself to all the subordinate (inferior) Genera of Beings’ (Balboa 2008: proposition 145). In other words, where there is a god (i.e. an image of The One having a certain individual character), then that character is expressed in all subsequent beings: souls, animals, plants and minerals.
For example, the sun is an image of The One, regarded as a deity in many cultures. The metal gold has an affinity with the sun by its colour. The sunflower and the heliotrope realise this affinity also, but in a manner peculiar to plants. At the animal level, the lion is regarded as a solar beast, due to the resemblance between the sun’s rays and his mane, but also the cockerel, who greets the sun each morning with his call. (See Chlup 2012: 130-1.) As Proclus puts it, quoting Thales, the pre-Socratic philosopher who lived almost a thousand years earlier: ‘the All is full of The Gods.’
Evidently, participation in the gods is possible in a variety of ways, and a single being may participate in a variety of gods. Another consequence of this is that all beings participate in the divine through their own nature. In Proclus’s words: ‘All things pray according to their own station and sing hymns’ (cited in Chlup 2012: 130). The universe is sown with symbols of the divine, which enable us through contemplation and manipulation of them to enter into participation.
Proclus called this theurgy. Another description is magick. Take a book of magickal correspondences, such as Aleister Crowley’s 777 (Crowley 1973). It is nothing other than a catalogue of exactly the kind of affinities that Proclus is describing. It is these affinities that form the basis of any conceivable religious ritual or magickal act. And yet the relationships between the gods and the beings that participate in them are obviously not of the same type as those between the Platonic hypostases (i.e. between The One, Intellect and Soul), which produce the different levels of reality.
Through Proclus we arrive at the notion that although the image of The One is progressively degraded on each successive level of reality, nevertheless it offers an alternative network of relationships, of a symbolic rather than a productive kind, which are themselves an inbuilt feature of whatever level of reality they are found within, and which offer a convenient route back to the divine. ‘Convenient’ in the sense that each being can discover in its own nature the relevant symbols.
The implications of this view are pragmatic and highly empowering. Contrast them with an eastern tradition such as Buddhism, which avows that everyday experience is meaningless or an illusion; or the western Christian view, which sanctions only a highly specific set of symbols and agencies as a valid route back to God.
Proclus’s worldview lost out to the prevailing Christian ideology, of course. It is fascinating to imagine how our culture would have been different if Hellenism and Neoplatonism had endured. And it is also tempting to speculate upon the various forms in which these traditions never really died out at all, but persist subtly into the present day.
Balboa, Juan F. (2008), trans. Proclus: The Elements of Theology. Available from lulu.com, ID 2321337.
Chlup, Radek (2012). Proclus: an Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Crowley, Aleister (1973). 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings. York Beach: Samuel Weiser.
O’Brien, Elmer (1964), ed. and trans. The Essential Plotinus. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.