chapter  9
18 Pages

Myth and Text in Proclus

From its inception, Christianity was a religion of the book, if by the book we mean the Old Testament. Platonism, by contrast, could not be called a philosophy of the book until the third century of the Christian era. Plato himself would not have wished it to be so, if the soul of his dialogues is the figure of Socrates, personifying a spirit of restless inquisition that carries the reader beyond the uncertain results of his own inquiries. This spirit survived in the Sceptics, but they lost sight of the man, and it was left to the Church to make a pagan Christ of Socrates as a man who had been obedient unto death in the service of truth.1 Platonists of a more dogmatic stamp seem to have cherished a scheme of doctrine which they could verify by proof-texts and occasionally by the protracted examination of recognized obscurities; since it was held, however, that any intellect had only to disenthrall itself from the body and its passions to know all that Plato knew, it was possible to acquire a great reputation as an expositor without offering a sustained and minute interpretation of any dialogue, let alone of the whole Platonic corpus. Fragments survive of early commentaries on the Theaetetus and the Parmenides, and the treatises of Plotinus often proceed by meditation on select passages, but Iamblichus would appear to have been the first to produce a series of commentaries on texts that he himself had arranged to form a syllabus. Almost all of his work is lost, but his method and some of his matter survive in Proclus, a pagan born in a Christian era who contrived to remain, on the surface at least, wholly ignorant of the dominant theology. He also left behind him a corpus of writings which, despite its incompleteness, exceeds in volume the surviving remains of any Greek philosopher with the exception of Aristotle. The bulk of this is commentary on Plato, in which he flatters his author from time to time by applying to him the allegorical tools that were characteristically reserved for sacred writings. By parity of reasoning he permits himself to engage in a remedial application of allegory to other texts which Plato himself had regarded only as mines of error. Plato’s coy description of his own parable of the cave as a verbal icon has been taken up by his student as a hermeneutic canon, with results that could have been held up by Plato himself as a sovereign illustration of the impotence of the book to explain its contents once the reader has taken it out of the author’s hands.2