Proclus’s account of immateriality

Proclus proves the immateriality of things through the idea of what “returns to itself”, though it is not entirely clear what this is. He first proposes it as an impossibility for a body, and he seems to be talking about how it is impossible for a whole body to come into into contact with all its parts. Presumably, the best any physical thing can do is fold one half of itself back over the other. He opposes this to the self mobile, which, in his telling, applies the whole of its power to the very motion of itself- the motor moves both the rest of the car and itself. But either this is not what he means or a car is not a self-mover in a sufficiently analogous sense to what he is talking about, and both accounts seem problematic. Why not use the example of the car as showing, if not the case of a material self-mover, at least a clear analogue to one?

But there would seem to be another account we can give of a thing “returning to itself” that might do just as well to make Proclus’s point which rests on the difference between the concrete and the abstracted. Knowledge seems to involve getting ideas from sensible things (whether by abstraction, recollection, illumination, or some other source) and then using those ideas to understand the sensible things themselves. We get an idea of a sphere by looking at basketballs, bearings, or the moon; then we study spheres themselves in geometry; then we use the geometrical sphere to understand, say, why the shortest airplane routes follow the path of a cut that goes through the two destinations and the center of the earth. The sphere goes out from itself into geometry and returns to itself by cartography. Any “abstraction” (to use a prejudicial term) both is separated from the concrete and seen as integral to it, though it must be separated before being seen as integral. This seems to be a clear case of “returning to itself” and all seem to recognize that it involves a sort of existence other than the physical, indeed entirely other than what is concrete or particular.

There are, to be sure, attempts to co-opt the abstract into the physical, but all the ones I’ve read seem more like handwaving than serious attempts to argue why, say, Euclidean spheres or justice or chemistry or modal operators deserve to be considered the same sort of objects as a stone or a planet.



  1. Jon Greig said,

    May 8, 2014 at 4:35 am

    Just curious, what are your sources for this in Proclus? So far in my studies of Proclus, at least starting with the first few proofs of Elements of Theology, it seems (very generally speaking) his proof for immateriality starts with the question of the one and the many, where unity eventually necessitates the prior existence of what is absolutely simple and one as the source and explanatory cause of making things one.

    My take on Proclus’ discussion of self-reversion, and really self-constitution (αὐθυπόστατος), is that this is more a property, rather than a proof, of immaterial entities, and something impossible for material entities, as your post goes into. Perhaps showing this property can serve the role of a proof, but at least going from the Elements (and I think this can be shown in places like the Parmenides Commentary) that seems part of his more general take on unity necessitating immaterial principles leading to a One.

    • May 8, 2014 at 7:20 am

      I said “argues for” because he uses it as a middle term to prove the immateriality of things, not because it is a proof for immateriality as such. IOW the answer to “why is the self-mobile immaterial? is “because it returns to itself”.

      • Jon Greig said,

        May 9, 2014 at 10:44 am

        James, could you provide the Proclus passages behind what you’re thinking here?

      • May 9, 2014 at 2:49 pm

        Elements of Theology, prop. 14-17.

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