P r o c l u s
BIRTH AND YOUTH
LIFE IN ATHENS
T H E L I F E
O F P R O C L U S
Birth and youth
Proclus was born at Byzantium in 412.
This date was reached due to his horoscope made by his disciple Marinus.
His mother' name was Marcella. His
father Patricius, a Lycian from Xanthus, was a noble and rich man. His
family was a family of judiciary magistrates.
Also he was destined to the lawyer's
office. Early he was sent back to Xanthus, which he considered to be his
real homeland, to do his first studies with a grammarian.
The Goddess protectress of Byzantium,
the Goddess Athena, who presided over his birth and who never ceased to
watch over his life, appeared him several times during his youth and exhorted
him to study philosophy.
In the course of an illness he had
at Xanthus, Apollo showed himself to him, touched him and cured him.
After this, he went to Alexandria,
Egypt, where the rector Leonas made him his favorite pupil. There he showed
a great gift towards the study of words. At the same time he studied the
lessons of the grammarian Orion and made progresses in the study of Latin.
But Greek, his maternal language, was the one of all his writings.
When some business called Leonas
to Byzantium, Proclus went there with him.
The Goddess Athena appeared him once
more and made him take the decision to go to Athens, Her beloved city.
But he wasn't able fulfil Her charge until some time later.
For the time being he returned to
Alexandria but he didn't returned to the rectors, instead, he took for
his masters the peripatetic Olympiodorus and the mathematician Hieron.
The first philosophical education of Proclus was then impregnated by Aristotelianism.
But Olympiodorus was not a narrow sectarian and as all the later Peripatetics
he leaned towards eclecticism and borrowed heavily from Stoicism.
Olympiodorus wished to marry his
daughter with his pupil, but Proclus was rebel towards marriage. Through
his ascetic life woman seem to play only a minimal role except for some
At the same time, Hieron initiated
him at his own religious ideas.
Life in Athens
Only after this second stay at Alexandria,
he was not yet twenty years old, Proclus went to Athens were he was going
to stay almost all his life. Curtis places this voyage in 429.
Athens was then a relatively prosperous.
The Antonines, and particularly Marcus Aurelius, had built there a great
public school where the different human sciences were taught by professors
paid with a fixed amount by the imperial treasury. Damascius tells us,
on a text preserved by Photius and Suidas, that the diadochus or
successors of Plato had step by step reached a true opulence due to the
numerous legacies received by the school.
Proclus, as an ancient worshiper
of the Goddess Athena searching the proximity of the Goddess, lodged himself
at the south side of the Acropolis, near the Sanctuary of Asclepius.
Reconstruction of the Sanctuary of Asclepius
The Parthenon (top left) is just over
the Sanctuary of Asclepius (center)
At his arrival in Piraeus, the port
of Athens, the young Proclus was received by the rector Nicolaos, who came
to the port to offer his hospitality as to a fellow countryman.
He rested a short while at a place
were there was a Temple erected in memory of Socrates. Happy presage, notes
his biographer. He arrived at the exact moment when the doors of the city
were going to be closed. Marinus, the biographer, concluded symbolically
that if Proclus hadn't come, the school of Alexandria would have been extinguished.
On those days, the effective chief
of the school of Athens was the neoplatonic Syrianus, and it wass from
him that Proclus heard the first lesson, to which also assisted Lachares,
at the same time rector and philosopher. Then Syrianus presented Proclus
to Plutarch, sun of Nestorius, his predecessor, who due to age was forced
into semi-retirement. But Plutarch accepted Proclus as auditor of his courses.
We stay with the impression that
the voyage of Proclus to Athens had been prepared, that he was expected
by his guests and that at Athens his way was already preordained.
Under the guidance of Plutarch of
Athens who was thus his first initiator, he commented the influential view
of Aristotle, presented in
De Anima (Of the Soul), (were Aristotle
agreed with Plato that mental phenomena are not wholly reducible to states
of the body; but he rejected the idea that people are unions of two distinct
substances, viz. body and soul. Instead, he argued that the mind is a set
of higher powers of a living organism, a rational animal, and that the
highest of these properties or powers - abstract thought - transcends the
capacity of matter). He also commented Plato's book Phaedo (with
the death scene of Socrates, in which he discusses the theory of forms,
the nature of the soul, and the question of immortality).
Two years later, before dying when
74 years old, Plutarch recommended Proclus to Syrianus, the director of
the Academy in Athens, which received him at his house and never leave
Syrianus became then his real patron,
and Proclus, in spite of being more gifted, presented himself always as
First, his master made him read again
all Aristotle's books, which Syrianus had been the commentator, but which
philosophy was to him only a starting point. Proclus retook then the studies
he had with Olympiodorus in Alexandria, but this time under a new angle,
because Syrianus was a true platonic; the Aristotelianism was for him only
a first step to a higher elevation. In the end, it was Syrianus who opened
to Proclus the Sanctuary were he would find his homeland. Proclus was only
28 years old when he wrote his own commentary to Plato's book Timaeus.
But the Platonism of Syrianus was
already enriched with religious speculation. He taught also to Proclus
the mysteries of Theurgy and gave him the character of Initiated and Pontifex.
At the same time Asclepigenia, daughter
of Plutarch of Athens, instructed him with the wisdom of the Chaldean Oracles,
already in use in the 3rd-century by Porphyry the Syrian-Greek scholar
Proclus began to meditate the Chaldean
Oracles and the Orphic Hymns. He added marginal notes to the commentaries
made by Syrianus.
Since this time Proclus was already
prepared for contemplative life: he had embraced, we are told by Marinus,
the Pythagorean abstinence and he used soberly from love; he refused all
his life to marry, reserving himself to the exercise of devoted friendship.
Archiadas, his colleague, was his best friend.
When Syrianus died in 450, Proclus
succeeded him at the head of the Academy, which he directed for more then
30 years with the title of diadochus ("successor" to Plato).
This direction was not without trouble,
because Christianity, now religion of state, did not see these free thinkers
and worshipers of the Greco-Roman religion with good eyes.
Proclus did not engage directly in
politics; he limited himself to a rather active social life, being as an
example surcharged with tutorships, giving also advises when he went to
assemblies, surrounded by a great prestige as man and as scholar, being
a venerable figure of the city.
But he was also persecuted and needed
to exile himself voluntarily to escape the traps of his enemies. Thus he
spent one year in Asia, busied with the Greco-Roman rites, before reassuming
his functions at the Academy.
Athena, the Goddess to whom he had
vowed his fidelity and whom he had made himself the fateful neighbor, had
appeared to him in a dream and advised him to search for shelter. He makes
allusion to this episode at the beginning of his book about Astronomy,
were he states that he has returned to Athens happily liberated by a wholesome
divinity from different hostilities which seamed endless.
He busied himself with the well-being
of the city and saved it from a dryness due to warnings from on high.
When the statue of the Goddess Athena
was removed from the Parthenon, the Goddess appeared to Proclus and said
to him: They turned me out of my Temple, now I come to live with you.
Since then She lives in our homes and in our hearts.
Personality and Attitude
We can glimpse the physiognomy of
Proclus through the description given by Marinus and through some other
No one has contested the merits of
this wise man nor the authority which was bound to his person. Even Damascius
makes no reservations in this point.
His beauty, which is told to us by
his biographer, was up to his moral value. Testifying a great force of
soul when in suffering. He had a grave and inspired eloquence.
If he was ambitious, we are told,
it was only of glory, and more towards Philosophy, to which he felt to
be the depositary, then towards himself.
If he was in wrath, he knew also
to dominate himself. If he inspired respect naturally, it was because he
professed respect with modesty towards his teachers.
Towards Plato, his religion was without
failure. He expended analogous epithtets, although some times less solemns,
towards other philosophers, such as Aristotle, Plotinus or Iamblichus,
as to mark the hierarchy of values.
His master Syrianus, from whom he
followed most of the time the opinions, benefited from his veneration constantly
Numerous are the other commentators
of Plato whom he praised, even when he was not in accordance with them.
He was surrounded in his teaching
by such a cult that an eminent politician named Rufin saw him at his course
surrounded by a aureole. This same Rufin offered him after his return from
Asia a great amount of money, which he refused.
But Proclus was mainly a devotee,
a sort of saint, whose attitudes only could be compared to the ones of
He used to spent long hours in prayer,
at sunrise, at down and at midday. He even used to pray in bed.
About the benefits of prayer he has,
even in his most theoretical works, as the commentary on Timaeus,
extensive developments, impregnated with religious ecstasy.
He has consecrated to the Greco-Roman
Gods some poems full of faith, of a moving lyricism.
He was in permanent communication
with the Greco-Roman sky, receiving constantly apparitions and messages
He took lessons from them and tried
to help with those lessons his fellowman. It was attributed to him the
merit of having saved Asclepigenius through his prayers.
Faithful to the observance of all
Greco-Roman rites, he also practiced abstinence from food in certain days.
He used to celebrate each month the
ceremonies of the Great Mother, to respect the unlawful days, to participated
in nocturne reunions accompanied by hymns and chants.
He even used the art of making turn
the divine spheres without words. He used the jaculatory prayers and used
the tripod for divination.
He used to commemorate piously the
birthdays of Socrates and Plato.
Truly he exceeded in some extent
the traditional cult of the Hellenes. He integrated in it some elements
of oriental origin and he was fully conscious of his syncretism, because
he called himself "priest of all religions".
The Christian faith was of course
excluded from this system, because he was afraid of the effects it would
have upon the civilization to which he was bound by all his nerve and which
had allowed the free development of greek thinking.
But if he fought against Christianity
in the name of his ideal, he kept himself always in the philosophical plan,
he had not hate for it, and some Christians attacked him with such a violent
polemic as he never used against them.
But we can not miss his fervor, his
spirituality and his passion towards the supernatural.
There was in him a mystical side
related with Hermetism, from which he loved the secret and the marvelous,
and with the Greco-Roman religion to which he belonged.
He thought have, we are told by Marinus,
the soul of the pythagorean philosopher Nicomacus.
He believed in statues which move
by themselves as the tables of spiritualists, and also in the magical virtues
of some stones and of some plants. He was completely filled with Theurgy.
He was interested in the celestial
signs and had a passion for symbolic interpretation.
It is not less truth that a powerful
breath raised his intrepid soul above himself; and its a moving sight to
see this wise man feed in superabundance with all the positive knowledge
of his time and trying to defend further a faith in the moment of being
The philosophical activity of Proclus
was intense and prone to overactivity. Each day he used to give five lectures,
more some purely oral conferences and he used to write seven hundred lines.
About the surroundings of Proclus
we know that Ammonius, chief of the School of Alexandria and one of the
most proficient commentator of Aristotle, had been trusted by his mother
to Proclus. Heliodorus, brother of Ammonius, had also been a disciple of
Between his disciples, Damascius
tells us about Heraiscus, whom Proclus had recognized as superior to himself.
He dedicated to him a paper about the general doctrine of the Egyptians.
Another one has been Zenodotus, whom
was said to be the delight of Proclus and about whom he had great hopes.
Simplicius, who wrote in the following
century, states that the philosophers who came close to him all followed
his doctrine, with the only exception of Asclepiodorus, the best pupil
of Proclus, which stayed a free thinker attached to systematic doubt.
Damascius tells us also about Theagenus,
a rich and liberal senator. Severianus, from Damas, another pupil, took
part in a conspiracy to restore the Greco-Roman religion. Panegrapius,
from Thebes or Panopolis, also pupil of Proclus, departed Athens to live
in Constantinople were he gained a great influence over Zeno, and also
participated in the same conspiracy as did Severianus.
In general a great number of pupils
surrounded Proclus and followed his doctrines, and mainly turned themselves
towards the Greco-Roman religion and the Oriental religions.
Proclus died at Athens in 485, aged
73 years old.
He was burried following the rite
of Athens, near his master Syrianus, not far from Mount Lycabettus.
The Parthenon (first plan) and
Mount Lycabettus (second plan)
On his grave one could read this engraved
I am Proclus,
Lycian whom Syrianus brought up to teach his doctrine after him.
This tomb reunites both our bodies.
May an identical sejourn be reserved to our both souls!
His death, according with Marinus,
was preceded and followed be celestial prodigies attesting the eclipse
of light which philosophy was having.
Proclus legated his belongings to
his native town, to Athens and to his friend Archiadas.
After him, his succession fell upon
Marinus, from Neapolis in Palestine.
Truly, Proclus was afraid with the
weakness of Marinus' health, but he was confident about his orthodoxy and
He thought he would keep the prestige
of platonism, not breaking with the tradition of Iamblichus and Plutarch,
and that he would not also take vanity from a preference dictated by the
common interest of the school.
Marinus showed his recognition writing
Proclus Page at Leiden University: with Introduction, The paternal
harbour, The Demiurge and the leader-gods, Theurgical hymns to the leader-gods,
Other forms of theurgy, Conclusions Biography and Notes.
at Neoplatonism Site.
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©1999 Roy George