Introductory Remarks Concerning the Ontological Distinction Between the One and the Many:

For Proclus, there is an essential, necessary ontological distinction between the One and the many. This distinction must not be understood in terms of a difference of degree or proportion but rather one in terms of kind or attribution. Thus, the many bear certain “qualities” that are attributed to them by their participation in some higher mode of being, and ultimately participation in the primal Unity.

For the many, essence precedes existence. This comes from the many’s origin in the One. Proclus claims that effects resemble their causes and that any appearance of the many was in some way pre-existent in the One from which it preceded. This leads to the  obvious claim that while essence precedes existence in the many such is not the case with the One. Rather, in the One, essence is existence and existence is essence. Said axiom is the defining ontological distinction of the One. This is the One’s simplicity. The many on the other hand, by virtue of its/their essence preceding its/their existence in the “mind” of the One (although “mind” here must not carry conscious connotation for the very fact that Proclus would also claim that the One transcends such), is ontologically distinguished by its complexity. Thus, two categories of ontology – simplicity and complexity – are what constitute the ontological difference between the One and the many.

Dualism in Neo-Platonism?:

From the above remarks it could be noted that an apparent dualism has emerged: one between simplicity in the One and complexity in the many. However, for Proclus no such dualism is maintained. Rather, there is a sense in which the many (as represented by lower modes of being – ie., human souls, animals, plants, inanimate bodies, and formless matter) are mirrors of the higher modes of being and ultimately the One. In other words, the lower, banal things show us the higher modes of being. This is understood as “theurgy.” Thus, for Proclus the material world is not opposed to the divine, but rather is shot through with divine luminosity. As such, the apparent dualism between simplicity and complexity evanesces through the participatory relationship between the One and the many.

Emanation and Reversion:

Still, the argument could arise that the mysterious vagueness of “methexis” (participation) does nothing to really nullify the now deemed “apparent” dualism contained in the ontological distinction between the One and the many. At this point, it may be helpful to note Proclus’ teaching on emanation and reversion. All things emanate from the One. The One is the primal cause of all that exists. In the many therefore (because effects resemble their causes) the One is ever-present (although not in full). This presence of the One in the many is also what causes the many to desire the One. By such desiring, the many strive(s) for its/their unity from whence it/they came. This process is known as reversion. All things at once emanate and revert to/from the One. This means that the lower modes of being, while being far from the One in virtue of emanation are nevertheless close to the One in their reversion – and so too with all other essents. So while all things have their origin (emanation) in the One, such an origin must not be understood in terms of a point-action event that moves from its beginning to some other end, but rather in terms of perennial participation which ultimately leads to a reversion back into the One. The One is thus the material, formal, efficient, and teleological cause of All.

Concluding Remarks and Questions :

While a true interaction with the above would require much more space (and time) the questions that follow will (hopefully) be the beginning of a series of posts dedicated to Neo-Platonic philosophy, it’s adoption/adaptation in early christian tradition (notably in Psuedo-Dionysius, Thomas Aquinas, and Nicholas of Cusa), and a series of posts on oppositional theories of being as found in Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Marleau-Ponty, Marion, and others. Of course, suggestions by readers (in the form of additional questions to explore, critiques, and/or supplemental information) are encouraged.

  1. What are some implications of the One transcending both existence and non-existence?
  2. Is it necessary to postulate the One “behind” the many? In other words, is there a need for theurgy or is there a way to postulate some form of authentic “materialism” without falling into a crude atheistic reductionism?
  3. If there is no ontological difference between the One and the many, what keeps one from embracing pantheism? Would such be undesirable?
  4. What implications does the Incarnation have on such discussions? For instance, does the Incarnation show us that the material can exhibit the divine? Or is there a more collapsed, flattened view of the Incarnation that would be better suited to help us understand the relationship between matter and non-matter?
  5. In what way might Husserl’s tripartite formula, “ego, cogito, cogitatum,” aid us in seeking to establish a “beyond within our midst” without having to look behind the veil.
  6. Is it possible to claim that “existence precedes essence,” along with Sartre, from within a theological framework? What might this look like?
  7. How might Marion’s phenomenological reduction, “As much reduction, as much givenness,” help to provide an alternative model of being than the one supplied in the Neo-Platonic tradition?