Proclus was a man obsessed with interpreting the first lines of Platonic dialogues. The first book of his commentary on the Parmenides, for example, is a masterpiece of allegorizing mania. There he offers mountains of explanations for every smallest detail of the first sentence of Plato’s work. He expounds each feature as a representation of cosmic and divine significance, often with no justification or explanation of his process. Scholars have noticed a problem with this: how can any interpretation possibly be better than any other, or even just wrong? What are the rules of the game? Without clarification, it’s easy to see Proclus as a runaway allegorist, an exegete gone wild.
This paper will offer a solution to this problem of excessive allegory. I suggest that we read his commentary as conversational and discursive with a critical audience. To wit, he offers various readings as suggestions in a playful exercise that bears similarity to “gymnastic” dialectical training, an essential pedagogical step in a good Platonic education. Indeed, he begins his discussion of the Parmenides with “exercises” (γύμνασμα) in how to allegorize. These performances are meant to open readers’ eyes to the symbolic nature of the universe before delving into deep metaphysics. To that end, the Parmenides’ first lines offer useful “practice grounds” not only for elucidating what the dialogue means, but really showing how allegory is done. These wild interpretations may be taken as a form of initiation that prepares the souls of the audience for moving up from “training” (γυμναστικὰς) to higher contemplations. His discussion of the beginning of Parmenides – far from a work of dry erudition or dogma – is a dynamic form of playful initiation for questioning students.
Allegory Poetics and Symbol in Neoplatonic Texts