Proclus was the most important philosopher in the Neoplatonic School of Athens. He was a tireless commentator of Platonic dialogues, a theurgist, a poet, a mathematician and, most significantly, an incomparable systematizer. His work determined the mode of reception of Platonic philosophy up to (and including) the Renaissance.
Proclus was born in Constantinople in 412. After receiving higher education in rhetoric, logic and mathematics in Alexandria, he arrived at Athens to study philosophy. There he was initiated in theurgy by Plutarch of Athens and Syrianus and became convinced about the inner harmony of the doctrines of Orpheus, Pythagoras, and the Chaldaean Oracles with Plato’s thought. After Syrianus’ death (437) Proclus became the head of the school, a position he kept until his death in 485.
From the immense literary production of Proclus we now possess about one third: commentaries on Platonic dialogues (Alcibiades, Cratylus, Parmenides, Republic, Timaeus) and on the first book of Euclid’s Elements, systematic works, little treatises and hymns to gods. Of his systematic works the Elements of Theology and the Platonic Theology stand out.
In the former work Proclus articulates his whole metaphysical system in 211 logically demonstrated propositions. The work is structured on the model of Euclid’s Elements and reminds one of Spinoza’s Ethics. It was the first time in antiquity that a philosopher systematized his metaphysical theory in such a strictly mathematical way (more geometrico).
The much larger Platonic Theology, on the other hand, a mature work, provides a synthesis of Proclus’ industry as a commentator. Here all the references to gods and demons to be found in the Platonic dialogues find their place in a magnificent theological system of metaphysical derivation: separate so-called “henads” (= unities), intellects, and souls, identified with traditional deities of Hellenism, occupy particular places in a multi-layered hierarchical structure ultimately stemming from the supra-essential One.
Through the writings of pseudo-Dionysius Areopagite (c. 500) the Neoplatonism of Proclus was implanted in the soil of the Orthodox Christian East. In the eleventh century the Elements of Theology, already translated in Arabic, were rendered from Arabic into Latin, and since they were erroneously regarded as a work of Aristotle’s they greatly influenced Mediaeval scholastic theology. Later, the basic representatives of the Italian Renaissance approached Proclus as an authentic exponent and interpreter of Plato’s own philosophy.