This paper examines the nature and stratigraphy of Proclus’ Paeonian chain which brings together the Body of the universe and the body of the individual in one and the same cascade of healing power and ontological proliferation. It unfolds from the Demiurge, through Apollo, Athena, Asclepius, Heracles, angels, daemons, heroes, individual healing souls, animals and plants.
Plato lists the three main principles the Demiurge takes into account in crafting the body of the universe at Ti. 32c5–33b1: 1) the universe as a living being should be “as whole and complete as possible” (Ti. 32d1); 2) it should be just one world (Ti. 33a1–2); and 3) it “should be ageless and disease-free” (ἀγήρων καὶ ἄνοσον, Ti. 33a2). As a result of all the above, the Demiurge fashions the world “as a single whole, composed of all wholes, complete and free of old age and disease” (Ti. 33a6–8). To the lesser gods he bestows the task “to weave what is mortal to what is immortal,” “to fashion and to beget living things,” “to give them food, to cause them to grow, and when they perish, to receive them back again” (Ti. 41d1–2). The latter presents Plato’s explanation of the nature of the human being as the interwoven compound of a divine soul and a mortal body. In comparison to the body of the universe, designed by the Demiurge, the body of the human being – despite the presence of a divine seed in it, i.e. the soul – is of a markedly lower order: it grows, it ages, it catches diseases, and it dies. In other words, the human body is everything the world’s body is not.
The legacy of Plato’s contrasting paradigm above has directed the development of the concept of the body in late ancient philosophy and especially in Platonism. Just shy of ten centuries later, Proclus revisits Plato’s original in light of the advanced stratification of post-Plotinian metaphysics. In his commentary on the aforementioned passage of the Timaeus (in Ti. 2.63–64), he posits a specific healing chain which he names after the healer of the Olympians – Paeon – and which he adds to the distinguished group of the Hermeic and Apolloniac named chains. The new ontological chain stems from the Demiurge who makes the cosmos free from “age and disease” and ends in the physicians’ repair of what has gone wrong with the individual body. The top and bottom of the Paeonian chain, Proclus further elaborates, represent the two kinds of health at work in the universe.
At the top is the Demiurgic health which maintains the health of the universe “in the highest degree.” This kind of health instantiates the Demiurge’s fashioning of the universe: “so, then, the Creator of the universe, too, when he makes it both ageless and incorruptible (ἄνοσόν τε καὶ ἀγήρων) with the intellectual power of medicine (διὰ τῆς νοερᾶς ἰατρικῆς) which restrains in advance all that is unnatural and does not permit it to subsist” (in Crat. 174.94). At the bottom is the Asclepian health which contains “all forms of mending what is contrary to nature” (in Ti. 2.63.29–64.10). This kind of health is in the hands of the practicing physicians who “spend their time on the lowest works of nature that are the most deeply embedded in matter” (in Ti. 1.6).
With the Paeonian chain, Proclus constructs a health register, which brings the health of the universe and the health of the body in a linear ontological progression which finds a proper place for the aging and diseased human body not as the ontological antithesis of the ageless and disease-free world’s body but as its expression, albeit tempered and imperfect. Considering the concomitant Christian interest in the body, the above Neoplatonic development can no longer be overlooked.
Gods and the Divine in Neoplatonism