New Book: The First Principle in Late Neoplatonism (late 2020), An Overview

New Book: The First Principle in Late Neoplatonism (late 2020), An Overview

Book cover
Book cover

Readers of the blog may be interested to know that I am in the process of finalizing the publication of a book on the first cause, or principle, in late Neoplatonists: The First Principle in Late Neoplatonism: A Study of the One’s Causality in Proclus and Damascius. It is being published in Brill’s Philosophia Antiqua series, due out by roughly mid-November (2020). You can find more information on the book page, live now here. The book is basically the fruit of my PhD dissertation, written between 2014–2018 at the LMU Munich under Peter Adamson (of History of Philosophy podcasting fame—also of ancient, Neoplatonic, and Arabic philosophical fame).

The background for the study lies in the Neoplatonic appropriation of Plato and the early Platonists positing a first cause of the Platonic Forms constituting the world’s rational and material structure—either the Good of Plato’s Republic VI, the ‘One’ of the Parmenides’ first hypothesis, or also the ‘monad’ and ‘one’ of Plato’s immediate successors (e.g. Speusippus and Xenocrates) in the Old Academy. Although the majority of earlier Platonists prior to Plotinus interpret Plato’s Good along Aristotelian lines as a divine, self-thinking intellect, Plotinus marks a break in the tradition by emphasizing that the true cause of all things cannot be divine intellect, or share the nature of divine intellect, if the Forms characterize it: it must be prior and ‘beyond being’ (ἐπεκείνα τῆς οὐσίας) in a radical sense as the principle of the Forms and all beings. All Neoplatonists after Plotinus follow this basic reasoning about the first principle, even while they come to modify Plotinus’ basic metaphysical framework in varying, critical ways.

As other previous studies on Proclus have noted, Proclus (following his master, Syrianus) and Damascius stand out among earlier Neoplatonists for responding to a crucial tension in Plotinus’ approach, which also characterized Plotinus’ immediate successors (Porphyry and Iamblichus, as I argue): as the first cause, the One must transcend all things that are characterized by plurality—yet because it causes plurality, the One must also anticipate plurality within itself. Although Plotinus is clear that the One is not a plurality in itself, he comes to attribute characteristics ‘hidden’ in the One that anticipate the features manifested in Being as a plurality. In this Plotinus stays faithful to a principle of causation for most ancient philosophers (i.e. the principle of causal synonymy) that the cause of X must itself pre-contain X-ness to bring about that effect. Yet if the first principle is truly prior, as Plotinus maintained against his predecessors’ views, it cannot contain any of the features it causes but must remain absolutely transcendent in relation to its final effect.

This tension becomes the main context for understanding Proclus’ and Damascius’ respective frameworks, as the book focuses on, even though both figures crucially diverge from each other. Proclus’ solution is to posit intermediate principles (the ‘henads’) that mirror the One’s nature as ‘one’, but directly cause plurality. This makes the One only a cause of unity, while its production of plurality is mediated by the henads that it produces. Proclus’ One is in one sense preserved from the danger of being affected by the plurality of its final effect. By contrast Damascius, while appropriating Proclus’ framework, thinks that Proclus’ solution is not enough: if the One is posed as a cause in any sense, it must be directly related to its final effect of plurality, even if its causality is mediated through the henads. Damascius thus splits Proclus’ One into two entities: (1) the Ineffable as the first ‘principle’, which is absolutely transcendent and has no causal relation; and (2) the One as the first ‘cause’ of all things, which is only relatively transcendent, while subordinated under the Ineffable. In this regard Damascius returns to a view of the One similar to Plotinus’ where the One anticipates its final effect within itself—while his solution to the tension in Plotinus’ One is to affirm a higher principle (i.e. the Ineffable) that transcends any connection between cause and effect, while the principle grounds the One’s transcendence as the first cause.

To understand how Proclus and Damascius construct their notions of the One—and more generally, the first principle’s nature—the study attempts to analyze the causal frameworks behind each figure’s conception of the One: as it goes on to show, how causes are conceived, up to the One, in large part explains how we get Proclus’ conception of the One as unparticipated, and transcendent—yet a cause—and Damascius’ conception of the Ineffable and the One—the former as a principle of transcendence in distinction to the One as the first cause, but grounded in the Ineffable. Hence, the first half of the book looks at Proclus’ and Damascius’ notions of causality, insofar as they apply to all levels of being and form the backdrop to the One’s causality. The second part of the book looks at the One’s causality for both figures: for Proclus, the One’s causality in itself and the causality of its intermediate principles; for Damascius, the One’s causality, and how the Ineffable is needed to explain the One. The conclusion of this study shows that Proclus’ framework results in an inner tension that Damascius is responding to with his notion of the One. While Damascius’ own solution implies its own tension—namely postulating a principle that is purely ineffable and not a cause—he at least solves a crucial difficulty in Proclus’ framework, and in doing so partially returns to a notion of the One much like Plotinus’ One.

Although the book is focused on a specific, relatively isolated period in the history of philosophy, and in a context where the Platonist Academy in Athens shuttered during Damascius’ lifetime, the issues at play in these conceptions of the first principle played a crucial, essential role (direct and indirect) in the ensuing transitions and developments in philosophical theology in the Abrahamic Traditions: namely into Pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor in the Byzantine East, and also into the Liber de Causis and Arabic Proclus/Plotinus into Avicenna in the Arabic world, alongside the Latin medieval world in Thomas Aquinas’ reception of Proclus, Ps.-Dionysius, and the De Causis, and further on into Duns Scotus and the German Dominican tradition (especially Berthold of Moosburg). (And not to mention influence in the medieval Jewish world as well.)

Effectively conceptions of God in all these traditions go back to these late Neoplatonist discussions which attempt to balance a radical negative theology and a philosophically sufficient conception of the first cause. Thus to understand, say, the late Byzantine dispute with Florence-era Thomists on the divine nature—i.e. whether to understand God as pure being, without any distinction (contra Proclus and Scotus), or to understand God as distinguished between essence (οὐσία) and activities (ἐνέργειαι) (as for the supporters of Gregory Palamas), or to understand God in terms of virtual distinctions (ala Duns Scotus), etc.—in many ways all this goes back to the kind of dispute at play between Proclus and Damascius. (I discuss these backgrounds in some more depth in the book’s Introduction.)

The book should thus be of interest not just to historians of philosophy interested in the afterlife of Plato and the Academy, or the interactions of Platonism/Aristotelianism in late antiquity, but also those interested in the metaphysics of causality in general, alongside contemporary philosophical theology, or also dogmatic theology (whether Catholic, Orthodox, or otherwise). And needless to say, it should be of interest for readers of this blog in the theme of ‘Christian Platonism’ and—in this case—its metaphysical roots in pagan Platonists.


Header image credit: Andreas Cellarius - Copernican System of the Universe

Jonathan Greig
Jonathan Greig

Jonathan is a postdoctoral researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, Austria.

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