Who is Proclus? What is late Neoplatonism?

This article is primarily historical. For an overview of Neoplatonic philosophy itself, I can currently do no better than point to my work-in-progress translation of Sallustius. Off-site, you can also find the Life of Proclus written by his student and successor Marinus.

A problem in the historiography of philosophy

Even fairly thorough courses on the history of ancient Greek or Greco-Roman philosophy often end on the early Neoplatonism of Plotinus of Lycopolis (†270 CE) or on Augustine, bishop of Hippo (†430 CE) and his Christian adaptations of Neoplatonism. This suits Eurocentric narratives which want to see the history of philosophy as a continuous lineage from Thales to Plato and Aristotle, through medieval Christianity, on to modern philosophy, whether that begins with Descartes or Kant. This linear sequence is then given names like “Western Philosophy” or “European Philosophy” (in distinction, usually, to a monolithic “Eastern Philosophy”). But it is, in many ways, a self-congratulatory European fiction, based on Christian apologia, as instrumentalized by Western chauvinists (be they Christian, secular or pagan), more than on level-headed scholarship.

One major source of this fiction has been Augustine himself, and his apologetical piece On True Piety. Here, he wrote that, if Plato and his followers could have lived in “Christian times”, they would have become Christians “by changing only a few words” of their doctrines, “as many Platonists of our more recent times have done” (De vera religione 4.7). Augustine never substantiates this claim, only naming one convert from pagan Platonism to Christianity, Gaius Marius Victorinus, in the entirety of his body of work. From all that I could gather it rather seems that, in his Western Roman circles, most people who picked up Plato and Plotinus were already Christians, and so they naturally “changed a few words” where it suited them. (And to do justice to them, it must be said that they really did much more than this. Ancient and medieval Christianity was never so much under the spell of pagan philosophy as modern anti-Catholic or anti-Christian critics allege. But these issue are beyond my remit.) Meanwhile, in the Greek-speaking regions of the Roman empire, and especially in Athens and Alexandria, Neoplatonism continued to be stridently pagan, even as emperors were attempting to legislate paganism out of existence.

The life of Proclus the Lycian

Enter Proclus, the greatest exponent of late Neoplatonism. His background is complex, as is typical of the later empire’s intellectuals, so it is worth saying a few things about it. It would, firstly, be an oversimplification to call him simply a “Greek philosopher”. He was a Roman citizen, with a Latin name (Proklos = Latin Proculus). By descent, he was Lycian, but by his time, the Lycians had been Greek-speaking for many centuries, so that Greek was his native language. By birth, he was from Constantinople, the “New Rome”, where Latin was also spoken by many intellectuals and officials. He attended grammar school (where he learned to read and write Greek, and also to interpret Homer and other classical authors) first in Lycia, which lies in modern Turkey, and then in Alexandria. Still in Alexandria, he went on to study the Latin language, Roman law, and rhetoric. All of this was necessary to follow his father in a legal career. But on a journey to Constantinople with Leonas, his teacher of rhetoric, Proclus had a life-changing vision of the goddess Athena, who commanded him to study philosophy. He began this work upon his return to Alexandria, where he attended lectures on Aristotle and on mathematics.

Just around the time that Augustine died (430 CE), the twenty-year-old Proclus left Egypt for Greece, and began to study with Syrianus at the Platonic Academy in Athens. Syrianus, together with his shadowy predecessor Plutarch of Athens (not the Plutarch), had created a new synthesis of Platonic philosophy based on Iamblichus, incorporating Aristotle, Homer, Orpheus, the Chaldaic tradition and much else. This synthesis—namely, late Neoplatonism—would be the basis of all serious philosophical writing we have from the next two centuries, in large part due to the efforts of Proclus to further systematize and explicate it. He became Syrianus’s successor as head of the Academy (which is why he is often called Proclus Diadochus, i.e., “the Successor”) in 437 CE, when his teacher died, and for most of the next 48 years, he wrote and lectured on every imaginable subject, with a prolixity and thoroughness that had the weight of finality.

Proclus’s influence

Simplicius, a Neoplatonist of the 6th century, would later write (On Physics, p. 795, transl. Urmson, adapted):

“Proclus’s successors right up to our time have followed him not only on this point (the nature of time) but also in all other matters. I except only Asclepiodotus, the best of Proclus’s pupils, and my (teacher) Damascius, of whom the former, because of his extreme cleverness, rejoiced in novel doctrines, while Damascius, through rivalry and his sympathy with Iamblichus, did not hesitate to reject many of Proclus’s doctrines.”

The question is: if Proclus really was of such monumental importance, why is he so often omitted from the historical narrative? The answer is complex, but I think the most important point is that Proclus’s works are so overwhelmingly pagan, so keenly interested in the gods, their statues and their sacrifices, that it is impossible to study him seriously and still represent him as a transitional figure from the early Neoplatonism of Plotinus to the Christian philosophy of the Middle Ages. In many ways, late Neoplatonism is a path that was an alternative to Christianity, and which is therefore discontinuous with the later history of “Western” philosophy.

On the other hand, of course, we still have texts from the late Neoplatonism, and a fairly large number at that. The natural thing for texts is to disappear after a time, so there was certainly always some interest in Proclus and his fellow thinkers that kept their works in circulation. But that interest was highly uneven across different post-ancient traditions.

The afterlife of Neoplatonism, especially Proclus

In late antiquity, some Neoplatonic works on logic, especially introductory ones, were translated into the Armenian language, but the works of Proclus were not.

In Mesopotamia, many Neoplatonists were translated into Syriac, and later Arabic, by Syriac Orthodox Christian translators. But the focus was squarely upon commentaries on Aristotle, and so only one or two works by Proclus, adjusted for the metaphysical tastes of monotheists, were available in the Islamicate world.

In the Latin West, Neoplatonism as a system was not handed down to the Middle Ages, as the few relevant works that survived were either quite rudimentary, impossible to understand in a nuanced way without the context of Greek sources, or thoroughly reworked to suit Christian theology (as with Marius Victorinus, Augustine and Boethius). It was only through translations from Greek and Arabic made in the High Middle Ages that anything meaningfully Procline became accessible, but reception was essentially limited to the highly abstract Elements of Theology and, far more often, its distorted Arabic adaptation, the Liber de causis. The latter had been sheared of polytheistic ideas, and in the former, they could be explained away, as no references to named deities are made. Although other translations of works by Proclus and other Neoplatonists were made, their reception was minimal through the Middle Ages.

In the Georgian language, there is a translation-cum-commentary of the Elements of Theology by Ioane Petritsi. It is a fascinating work, but again, it is presented as conformable with Christianity, and decontextualized from Proclus’s other works on the nature and worship of many gods. Even the word “gods” is turned into “divine beings” or “divine things”.

Another Christian adaptation of Proclus, originally composed in Greek but later translated into other Christian languages like Syriac and Latin, must be mentioned. I am referring to Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a Christian writer who transposed Proclus’s system into Christianity, but, in a pious fraud, wrote under the name of a disciple of the apostle Paul. Far from being a continuation of Proclus’s project, however, the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus betrayed many of his central ideas (most importantly, of course, his polytheism, but also his complex emanative ontological system), and left its Christian readers only two choices: to condemn the work because of its dependence on the pagan Proclus, or to condemn Proclus as a plagiarist. As such, pious readers of Pseudo-Dionysius were more likely to turn to the less controversial Plotinus to illuminate his words than to touch Proclus.

In short, there was only one place where Proclus was read in a way that wasn’t aggressively decontextualized: the remnant Roman Empire, now usually called the Byzantine Empire, where literary Greek continued to be in use. And he was popular at times, there is no doubt about it. The exceptional polymath Michael Psellus is especially well known for the use he made of his works. Nevertheless, he was a Christian, and while he often quotes him dispassionately, there are clear limits to his acceptance of Proclus’s doctrines. Despite this moderate approach, the small renaissance of Procline studies in the 11th century provoked a lengthy refutation of the Elements of Theology by the bishop Nicholas of Methone. What in other contexts could be misread as an innocuous book on metaphysics was clearly recognized as a fundamentally non-Christian work by those who had the language to read anything else of Proclus’s.

Even the Byzantine philosopher Plethon (14th and 15th centuries), the first reviver of ancient polytheism, did not adopt the late Neoplatonic system, but his own interpretation of Plato, even if he generally viewed Proclus with favor. After him, in the Platonic tradition of the Italian Renaissance, writers shared Plethon’s positive opinion of both Proclus, but in practice, they read Plato through Plotinus’s (much simpler) early Neoplatonic system. Nothing could make this clearer than comparing the Platonic Theology of Proclus, which outlines a complicated metaphysical structure involving dozens of divinities, with the stripped-down system of Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology, in which pagan gods appear only as metaphors, and Intellect (Greek Nous) has been rechristened as Angelus. (There is a fantastic interview about the “Latin Polemical Tradition” with Dan Attrell on the Glitch Bottle podcast which explains how Christian philosophers like Ficino and Pico della Mirandola reworked non-Christian traditions in support of Christianity, not in a spirit of religious pluralism.)

It is really only with Thomas Taylor (1758–1835) that the tradition of late Neoplatonism as it existed the 5th and 6th centuries CE found a genuine follower again (albeit one who was, in turn, without real successors). It is only in the wake of two monumental academic projects—the late 19th-/early 20th-century Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca (which made the works of the Neoplatonists available in Greek) and the ongoing late 20th-/early 21st-century Greek Commentators on Aristotle (which is translating them from Greek into English)—that anything like disinterested scholarship on late Neoplatonism could begin, and it will be some time still before contemporary publications make the translations and annotations of Taylor obsolete.

What is late Neoplatonism?

As I use the term, late Neoplatonism is the last phase of pagan Platonism in antiquity. Whatever is called Neoplatonism in the succeeding centuries is substantially different. Compared to earlier Neoplatonism, late Neoplatonism shows a greater consistency between different thinkers, somewhat in the way that the earlier Neoplatonists had much more in common with each other than did the so-called Middle Platonists. These latter did not even agree about the number and nature of the first principles, whereas all Neoplatonists fundamentally agreed that there was one first principle, the One, emanating a second, Intellect, which in turns produces a third, the Soul, from which springs the cosmos. There were, perhaps, also some Middle Platonists who would have agreed with this bare outline, but for the Neoplatonists, Plotinus of Lycopolis’s formulation of the theory was the basis from which all further work proceeded.

The early Neoplatonists (late 3rd, early 4th centuries CE), after Plotinus, differed significantly about how to further systematize the ideas of their preceptor. The most significant among them were Plotinus’s students Amelius and Porphyry, and Porphyry’s students Theodorus and Iamblichus. Amelius and Theodorus are now rather obscure to us, but we still have important works from Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus each, and a minor one from a student of Iamblichus, Dexippus. After this, there is a significant break, and we know only facts about the biographies of the followers of Iamblichus, but almost nothing about their philosophy.

The middle Neoplatonists (late 4th century CE) are a motley crew, but I group them together because they are all equally separated from the earlier and later groups by a gap in the textual documentation, exacerbated by the fact that none of the surviving works from their period are really philosophical treatises. The emperor Julian and his friend Sallustius worked in the tradition of Iamblichus; Hypatia of Alexandria and the Christian Synesius (as well as the later Macrobius) seem to have been followers of Porphyry instead. We know that there were followers of Theodorus as well, but virtually nothing about them. Up to this point, there were also still pagan philosophers who knew but did not follow Plotinus, including Calcidius and the important Aristotelian commentator, Themistius.

From around 400 CE, all Greco-Roman philosophers of whom we know more than the name appear to have been Neoplatonists (which of course does not mean that the mere names were so as well, but what is beyond our grasp is beyond our grasp). In particular, the system of an Iamblichean called Syrianus (whose lineage beyond his immediate teacher and predecessor Plutarch of Athens is unfortunately obscure) was adopted by his students, including Proclus, and became the shared basis for philosophical teaching in Athens and Alexandria. Although it is often said that Justinian closed the school at Athens in 529 CE, it appears that it was reopened and its philosophers resumed their activities, of whatever shape they then were. In Alexandria, we know that Olympiodorus taught, cautiously but as an open pagan, until around 575 CE, and while his immediate successors may (or may not) have been Christians, they continued to teach the same curriculum, at least up to a point.

The works of Proclus

There are many different ways of listing Proclus’s works, none of them satisfactory. We may begin with those works which are of unquestioned authenticity, self-contained, extant in the original Greek, and complete. They are only two:

(1) Elements of Physics: a systematic description of Aristotle’s theory of motion.

(2) Elements of Theology: an abstract outline of theology and metaphysics in general (which can also be called “theology” in Greek).

Both of these works are modelled on the Elements of Euclid, a systematic work of geometry in which everything is derived from first axioms through proofs (although this is not necessarily quite how his works of Elements function). Proclus also produced a:

(3) Commentary on Euclid’s Elements 1: more than pure exegesis, this work includes an important overview of the history of mathematics and many digressions on the connection between mathematics and late Neoplatonic metaphysics. At the end of this works, Proclus leaves it open whether he will write a commentary on the other books of Euclid’s Elements; it seems that he did not.

With this, we have listed all works extant in full and in Greek. There are also some works which survive in complete form, but in medieval Latin translation (and a Christianized Greek version). These are the so-called opuscula or “little works”, three of what once were many philosophical monographs:

(4) Ten Problems Concerning Providence.

(5) On Providence, Fate and What Depends on Us.

(6) On the Existence of Evils.

Other works survive in Greek, but not in a complete form, namely some of his commentaries on Plato (there seems to have been little interest in his work on Aristotle). These were all of prodigious length, and in all but one case, they consequently break off somewhere in the middle (and even so, they all remain very long works):

(7) Commentary on Plato’s Alcibiades.

(8) Commentary on Plato’s Cratylus.

(9) Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus.

(10) Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides.

The one exception is a commentary of more circumscribed scope, namely 12 individual essays, which has been copied out all the way to the last word. Unfortunately, however, a section including the end of Essay 1, all of Essay 2 and the beginning of Essay 3 have been lost, so that this too is incomplete:

(11) Commentary on Plato’s Republic.

These commentaries do not exhaust our knowledge of Proclus’s Platonic studies, both because of the many references to his lost works in later commentaries on Plato (see my complete list of the ancient Plato commentaries), and because of another work which is preserved incompletely due to its sheer length:

(12) Platonic Theology: the flesh, so to speak, on the bones of the abstract Elements of Theology.

Finally, some miscellaneous works:

(13) Hymns: a collection of seven hymns addressed to various deities, each of them complete, but only a selection of what we know was once a larger corpus.

(14) Commentary on Hesiod’s Works and Days: excerpts from this survive in the body of explanatory scholia on the Works and Days. This means that the commentary is incomplete, yet what survives still covers most of the Hesiodic poem.

(15) On the Eternity of the World: survives through excerpts in a critique of the work by the Christian John Philoponus.

(16) On the Priestly Art According to the Greeks: better known by the misleading titles On Sacrifice and Magic and On Theurgy, probably an excerpt from a larger work.

(17) Chaldaic Philosophy: a major lost work from which a number of excerpts survive.

(18) Exposition of Astronomical Hypotheses: a paraphrase of Ptolemy’s astrological Tetrabiblos. The attribution to Proclus is uncertain (but seems not implausible to me).

Of these 18 works, only three (the Elements of Physics, the commentary on the Works and Days and the Chaldaic Philosophy) have to my knowledge never been translated into English, but the translation of the commentary on the Republic has not yet been completed, and the only translation of the Exposition of Astronomical Hypotheses is incomplete and unsatisfactory. On the Eternity of the World must be read in the translation of Philoponus’s Against Proclus on the Eternity of the World.

Fragments

The above list of works already contains many fragmentary works, that is, books which were handed down incompletely or only in the form of quotations or excerpts. But there are almost countless more fragments, strewn across the works of other Platonists and later Byzantine writers, some of which could be listed by name although there is no content beyond this, some of which are substantial enough to merit inclusion but have no title to name them by. If a collection of them were made (which would be a great contribution to the scholarship), the editors would also have to decide, in dozens, perhaps hundreds of cases, whether a certain idea or even wording might have been taken from Proclus even though he is not named. An unenviable task, to be sure. In the meantime, it will remain the case that no one can claim convincingly to have read all of Proclus.

Proclus on the Rulers of the Elements

In Sallustius VI.5, the spheres of the elements are assigned to the gods as follows: earth to Hestia, water to Poseidon, air to Hera, and fire to Hephaestus. The idea that each element has its ruler is shared by the later Neoplatonists, but they are rarely so forthcoming about their identity.

One exception comes in Proclus’s commentary on Euclid’s Elements (p. 167), where he subjects “all moist and cold substance”, that is water, to the rule of Kronos; “all fiery nature”, i.e., the dry and hot, to Ares; says that “Hades encompasses the entire earthly life”, the dry and cold; while “Dionysus rules moist and hot origination (genesis)”, i.e., the air.

Whether this is an alternative to the system of Sallustius or a parallel order (the elements themselves vs. the proper sphere of each element?) which can coexist with the former, I do not know, although I am inclined towards the latter, because it seems designed ad hoc to account for a Pythagorean doctrine, namely that (according to Philolaus) the triangle is sacred to these four gods.

(Although I do not think there is a direct historical connection, it is also worth noting that the alchemical symbols for the four elements are all triangles: air 🜁, fire 🜂, earth 🜃, water 🜄.)

The Shield of Achilles, but Latin (Ilias Latina 862-891)

There, the ruler of fire1 had embossed the arch of the world,
The stars and the earth, encircled all round with the flowing Nymphs
Of Oceanus, and Nereus circled round (by the sea);2
[865] The turnings of the constellations and measured times of Night,
And the four parts of the world, everything between the Bears3 and the South Wind,
And the whole distance of sunset from rosy Dawn,4
From where the Morning Star and Evening Star, the one who is both,5
Arises with his horses,6 and the whole heaven that the hollow Moon
[870] Passes through in her revolution and illuminates with her shining lantern.
And to the sea, he added its gods: great Nereus
And the old man Oceanus, and Proteus who is never the same,7
The wild Tritons and Doris, who loves the floods;8
And he created flowing Nereids with astonishing artfulness.
[875] The earth carries forests, and terrifying monstrous beasts,
Rivers and mountains and cities with high walls,
In each of which a people vye to exercise their laws and ancient rights;
There sits a judge equally just to both sides
And decides a legal quarrel with undisturbed expression.
[880] In another part, young girls are singing a Paean9
Giving gentle dances and beating skilfull drums;
He10 stretches his thumb to strike the fine chords of the lyre
And plays the seven tones (in tune with?) pipes.
They make songs that imitate the movement of the world.11
[885] Others cultivate the fields: young bulls plough the heavy glebes,
A strong reaper mows the ripe ears of grain,
And the dirtied vintner delights in the grapes they have pressed;
The flocks crop the meadows, goats hang on the rock.
Inbetween all stood Mars, golden in his armor,
[890] Around whom sat the goddess Atropos and the others,
Grim Clotho and Lachesis,12 with serpents for hair.

1 Ignipotens, meaning Vulcan/Hephaestus.

2 The earth is represented, apparently, as a disk, surrounding by the waters (Nymphs) of Oceanus like a circle, and Nereus (one of the so-called old men of the sea) is placed in the waters.

3 Ursa maior and Ursa minor, two northern constellations.

4 I.e., from North to South and West to East.

5 Lucifer (Eosphorus) and Hesperus are different appearances of the planet Venus.

6 The stars were depicted as traversing the heavens on horses or horse-drawn chariots. According to Lactantius Placidus, “the poets give a four-yoked chariot to the Sun, a two-yoked one to the Moon, and to the other stars, single horses” (On the Thebaid 6.239).

7 Proteus can change his to any shape.

8 Doris is the mother of the Nereids, the daughters of Nereus.

9 A hymn, usually to Apollo.

10 Apollon himself.

11 The music of the celestial spheres, which humans (ordinarily) cannot hear.

12 These three sisters are the Fates (Parcae/Moirai).

What Orphica did the Late Neoplatonists read?

[Note: This post originally made a slightly stronger case, but upon further research, I have modified the argument somewhat.]

There is a consensus in scholarship, which until yesterday I assumed to be certain fact, that, whereas earlier generations had seen a variety of poems ascribed to Orpheus arise and disappear, or being reworked again and again, the late Neoplatonists of the 5th and 6th centuries CE were looking to a single canonized epic, the Sacred Discourses in 24 Rhapsodies. But in fact, there are hardly any certain facts about this work. This precise title is given only in the Suda, a 9th-century encyclopedia, without any indication of their contents. Other references to Orphic works by the phrase “sacred discourses ”(hieroi logoi), or even just “discourses” (logoi), are altogether too vague to treat as formal titles, and are not connected with the fragments of the Neoplatonists anyway. Further, only one author refers to a numbered rhapsody, namely the so-called Tübingen Theosophy 61, which attributes two lines about Phanes to “the fourth rhapsody to Musaeus”; but note that even this implies a different title, namely Orpheus to Musaeus in X Rhapsodies. If both of these titles refer to the same work, then we should rather say that it has no formal title at all.

The only connection of the shadowy Orphicum of the Suda and the Tübingen Theosophy to the Neoplatonists is that Damascius refers to Orphic rhapsodies three times in one passage of his great treatise On Principles. This, however, is no connection at all, unless it could be shown either that, in the Orphic arena, the word rhapsody was the exclusive property of the Sacred Discourses and/or Orpheus to Musaeus, or that the Neoplatonists quote from Orpheus in a way that suggests there was one work consisting of a set number of rhapsodies in a fixed order, like the Tübingen Theosophy does. But neither is the case.

Because of this, and because neither Damascius nor other Neoplatonists use the word rhapsody to refer to Orphic works in any other context, a much less reckless theory is that Damascius was grasping for words to refer specifically to the contents of the Orphic poetry he knew, and which was in use among the Neoplatonists, as opposed to the divergent summaries of Orphic theology that he found in older prose works, because he was discussing both in said passage (namely On Principles p. 316-320). The terms he lands upon are “the theology in those Orphic rhapsodies that are in circulation” (316), “the accustomed Orphic theology” (317), “the theology in the rhapsodies” (318), and “Orpheus in the rhapsodies” (320). Everywhere else when Damascius has the same body of poetry in mind, he refers simply to Orpheus, a few times to “the theologue” or, in one instance each, to “the Orphica”, “Orpheus the theologue”, “the Orphic theologies”, and “the Orphic theology” (mentioned alongside the Chaldaic and Egyptian theology and that of the Phoenicians in On Principles p. 219). Either, then, Damascius fastens upon an incidental quality of the Orphic poems he knew (that one or more of them were subdivided into rhapsodies, or could be described as rhapsodies); or he considers Rhapsodies (not Sacred Discourses in 24 Rhapsodies!) as the title, but strongly prefers not to use it.

Syrianus, the teacher of Proclus, and Hermias, another student of his, refer only to Orpheus and do not name any poem of his; the same is true of Olympiodorus and the Christian John Philoponus (both students of Hermias’s son Ammonius), as well as Simplicius, the student of Damascius. If we had only these authors, we might not even think that an Orphic poem would have a title (and perhaps we would be right).

Really, it comes down to Proclus, as his works are the most extensive and most studded with quotations of Orphica. He again often refers simply to Orpheus or Orphica (often indistinguishable from Orphics qua persons, who also occur), as well as “Orpheus the theologue”, and often merely “the theologue” (also “the theologue of the Hellenes”; when Proclus cites “the theologues”, on the other hand, this can mean many different things and is often deliberately general or vague, and only rarely means specifically Orpheus/Orphica).

When referring to the Orphic texts and/or their contents, Proclus calls them by an embarrassment of names: “the Orphic writings”, “the Orphic verses”, “the Orphic tradition(s)”,* “the Orphic myths”, “the Orphic theology”, “the Orphic theology of the Hellenes”, “the theology of the Orphica (or Orphics?) which is the same as the Hellenic”, “the Orphic theomythia”, “the Orphic theologies”, “the Orphic theogonies”, and “the Orphic genealogies”. These are all fascinating appellations, but what they are not is anything like a formal title; in fact the variety strongly suggests there was no title, at least not in Proclus’s copies. If there was, we have no reason to think it was Sacred Discourses or Rhapsodies, let alone Sacred Discourses in 24 Rhapsodies.

(*Note that traditions here refers to things handed down in writing, not to a tradition of practice, initiation or oral teaching.)

In sum, we can say no more than that the Neoplatonists were working with what they saw as a coherent body of Orphic poetry, which they usually cited by naming Orpheus, but also (without difference in reference, it seems) attributed to the Orphics. They referred to it in various singular and plural terms, suggesting that more than one poem or narrative were in play (and perhaps multiple tellings of the same narratives, since Proclus mentions “theogonies”, plural); further uncertainty arises from the fact that they preferred to speak of it as a theology, a word that can mean a text but also the coherent ideas contained in a plurality of texts.

The only Orphic poem which a Neoplatonist actually mentions by name is the Orphic Hymn to Number, which however is also called the Pythagorean Hymn to Number, and thus is clearly an exceptional case to begin with.

If, despite all this, the scholarly consensus should in fact be right in that the title in the Suda, Sacred Discourses in 24 Rhapsodies, refers to essentially the same collection used by Proclus and his fellow late Neoplatonists (and that is a big If), then still, (a) we have to conclude that neither this nor any of the other appellations was a fixed title, (b) there is very little to corroborate that there was a fixed sequential order of rhapsodies,* (c) there is nothing at all to corroborate that the number of rhapsodies was consistently fixed at 24, and (d) a compilation of rhapsodies for which we cannot prove that name, number or order were consistent should not be treated as a canonized and closed text: lines, passages and even whole rhapsodies may very easily have been in fluctuation even if the notion of a single body of Orphic rhapsodies was as widely shared as has been assumed (an assumption, I will stress again, which rests on very shoddy foundations).

[*The single piece of corroboration, to be clear, is in the Tübingen Theosophy, as mentioned above. Running counter to this, several fragments that have been assigned to the Sacred Discourses in 24 Rhapsodies by editors are cited according to topic rather than number: On Zeus and Kore (fragment 287 Bernabé/115 Kern), The Discourses about Hipta (fragment 329 Bernabé/199 + 211 Kern), The Destruction of Dionysus (fragment 330 Bernabé/206 Kern)]


ADDENDUM: Some fragments that have been classified as Orphic because Proclus ascribes them to the theologues probably should be excluded from the category. In particular, Proclus says that the two lines “Wretched humankind is your tears, / but when you laughed, you sprouted forth sacred godkind” are by “the theologues” or “some person hymning the Sun”, in other words: are from an anonymous Hymn to the Sun.

ADDENDUM 2: I initially overlooked Marinus’s Life of Proclus, which contains some further mentions of Orphic texts/traditions, including one reference to rhapsodies. Firstly, “Orphic verses” are mentioned alongside hymns as texts that Proclus had memorized (ch. 20); then “Orphic theology” is discussed as something of which one can teach the “rudiments (stoikheia)” without teaching “the verses” (ch. 26); Syrianus wrote “commentaries on Orpheus” (ibid.); Proclus gave lectures on “the (works) of Orpheus” (in Greek, τὰ Ὀρφέως), which Marinus calls ποίησις, a word that can equally mean poetry in the abstract or a long work of epic poetry (ch. 27). Finally, in the same chapter, “Orpheus” is equivocated with “the entire theomythia or all the rhapsodies”, yet another indication of the ambiguously singular/plural character of the Orphic corpus of the Neoplatonists and the absence of a fixed or formal title. My prior conclusion, that we cannot say whether the Orphica of the Neoplatonists were one or several texts, holds, but Marinus does imply that for the circle of Proclus, there was a closed canon of some sort, such that a commentary on its entirety was imaginable.

ADDENDUM 3: It is possible that the newly discovered palimpsest containing hexameter poetry about the childhood of Dionysus belongs to the corpus used by the Neoplatonists, and also possible that it is from the Sacred Discourses; it is possible, again, that it is both, but caution is in order. If the Dionysiaca of Nonnus were lost and a few pages about the childhood of Dionysus were recovered, it may well have ended up being ascribed to this phantom of scholarship as well. Even if the editor’s conclusion is correct in that the new poem is Orphic, it would take extraordinary evidence to connect it with a specific text or other group of fragments. Orphic poetry, after all, is infamous for its textual instability and the fact that it continued to be reworked repeatedly over antiquity.

FINAL NOTE: The Late Neoplatonists knew at least a few hymns ascribed to Orpheus, but they show no awareness of the now prominent corpus of Orphic Hymns. That said, there is a degree of overlap between the contents of their “Orphic theology” and the ideas contained in the Hymns.

Proclus on Atlas and the Pleiades (and the Muses)

Proclus, Scholium on Hesiod’s Works and Days 383–387, When the Pleiades, daughters of Atlas, are rising, begin your harvest, and your ploughing when they are going to set. Forty nights and days they are hidden and appear again as the year moves round, when first you sharpen your sickle.”

Hesiod is referring to Atlas, the child of Iapetus, who carries heaven and the pillars “that keep Earth and Heaven apart” (Odyssey 1.54), because he is established as their one connection and has been allotted the delimitative powers of Heaven and Earth, through which the former, who is separated from the Earth, is whirled around her for all time, and the latter, who is stationed fixed in the middle, brings forth all things maternally, as many as Heaven generates paternally. Because he steadfastly guards these powers of them both in delimitation, Homer called them pillars “that keep Earth and Heaven apart”, which shows that they are separate from each other and eternally unmixed with each other.

They mythologized that his children are the seven Pleiades: Celaeno, Sterope, Merope, Electra, Alcyone, Maia and Taÿgete. These are all archangelic powers set over the archangels of the seven spheres, Celaeno of the Saturnine sphere, Sterope of Jupiter’s, Merope of Mars’s, Electra of the Sun’s, Alcyone of Venus’s, Maia of Mercury’s and Taygete of the Moon’s. And the causes for these are manifest.*

[*The most obvious connections are between Maia and Hermes, her son according to myth, and between Electra and the Sun, also called Ēlektōr.]

The one arrangement of the seven is drawn onto the fixed sphere like a celestial cult statue (agalma), which they call the Pleiad. It is a visible constellation that is placed within Taurus, and through its rises and sets, it signifies the complete change of the weather (lit. ‘air’) to laypeople. So, Hesiod tells us to begin the harvest when these Pleiades are rising. And they ‘rise’ when they first appear before sunrise, because the morning rise of a star is the first visibility before the rays of the sun, while the evening rise is that immediately after sunset. And the morning set is the disappearance into the western horizon shortly before sunrise, whereas the evening set is the set immediately after the sunset. Now, the Pleiades rise when the Sun enters into Taurus, because they emerge before it (i.e., the visible constellation Taurus); and it is at this point that Hesiod tells us to begin the harvest, but when they are setting—meaning the morning set—he tells us to begin ploughing, that is, when he Sun is already leaving Scorpio; because at that point comes the morning set of Taurus. Having said this much, he continues by saying for how long a timespan the Pleiades are hidden from the sunrays, namely forty days; because they are hidden when the Sun is at the end of Aries, and they still are when it passes into Scorpio; and they are likewise not only visible when when the Sun is in Taurus, but also rise when the Sun is already in Libra.


[Note: in later scholia, it is said that, according to Proclus, the Pleiades are “archangelic powers, like the Muses”. This may be faulty extrapolation by a Christian Byzantine writer, but it could very well be a piece of information lost from the – very incomplete – text of Proclus, especially since the nine Muses have also been assigned to different spheres, including by Proclus himself in his commentary on the Timaeus (vol. 2 p. 210). He does not elaborate on this, but in Martianus Capella (Philologia I.28), they are correlated as follows: Polymnia to the Saturnian sphere, Euterpe to Jupiter’s, Erato to Mars’s, Melpomene to the Sun’s, Terpsichore to Venus’s, Calliope to Mercury’s, Clio the Moon’s, and Thalia to the Earth. Urania is not enumerated but may be connected to the sphere of fixed stars or to the cosmos as a whole. Note that for Proclus, the nine Muses are only members of the chain of the Muses, while their “very first cause” is the goddess whose name is simply Muse (Proclus, On the Republic vol. 1 p. 184).]