Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 13h

13.6.2. Hegel followed Cusanus in structuring his Neoplatonism on Proclus’ triad of triads Further discussion of Proclus’ triad

I have discussed Proclus’ triad, particularly in relation to Hegel, from 11.3.3 to 11.3.8 inclusively, but some points warrant restatement. The triad Being, Life and Intelligence, within the second hypostasis Intellect or Intellectual-Principle, is suspended from the (first hypostasis, the) One which forms no part of it – Hegel, as discussed, was importantly and indicatively incorrect when he wrote of ‘One’ in this regard.1 In procession outward, one Being becomes Life which becomes Intelligence (or the ‘mixture’ of one Being and Life) in the developmental reversion to the one Being.

There must be Being to create Life (‘reality’, the multiplicity of what is) and Life for there to be Intelligence (nous). Each element mirrors or implies the other two in its own triadic structure. The principles are not hypostases but aspects of a single reality predominating at a certain stage in the process of emanation and return.

Proclus discussed this triad in Proposition 101 of his Elements of Theology and in Book III of On the Theology of Plato. He called these principles posterior to the One by different names – Being he also called ‘bound’ and ‘father’, life he also called ‘infinite’ and ‘power’ and he denominated Intelligence ‘limit’ or ‘the mixed’. As Dodds wrote, this unity-in-distinction was used by the Christian Neoplatonists, including Cusanus, to explain the doctrine of the Trinity.

Proclus described the first triad bound, infinite and the mixed in Book III, Chapter XII of On the Theology of Plato

Such therefore, is the first triad of intelligibles, according to Socrates in the Philebus, viz. bound, infinite, and that which is mixed from these. And of these, bound indeed is a God proceeding to the intelligible summit, from the imparticipable and first God, measuring and defining all things, and giving subsistence to every paternal, connective, and undefiled genus of Gods. But infinite is the never-failing power of this God, unfolding into light all the generative orders, and all infinity, both that which is prior to essence, and that which is essential, and also that which proceeds as far as to the last matter. And that which is mixed, is the first and highest order of the Gods, comprehending all things occultly, deriving its completion indeed through the intelligible connective triad2

He described the second triad in Chapter XIII

(There is a second triad proceeding from this.) That which is first…in this second triad, may be called bound; that which is second in it, infinity; and that which is the third, life.

(The first triad proceeds) intelligibly and unically, (the second triad proceeds) vitally, and…according to the form of infinity (and the third triad proceeds according to the fact) that it is mixed 3

and the third triad in Chapter XIV

As the first unity therefore, after the exempt cause of all things, unfolds into light intelligible being, and the second unity, intelligible life, thus also the third constitutes about itself, intelligible intellect, and fills it with divine union, constituting power as the medium between itself and being, through which it gives completion to this being, and converts it to itself. In this therefore, every intelligible multitude shines forth to the view. …the first being is most similar to the one; the second, is parturient with multitude, and is the origin of separation; but the third, is now all-perfect, and unfolds into light in itself, intelligible multitude and form.4

These three triads, ‘expressing an intrinsic and essential relation between successive levels of being’5, define the whole of the intelligible order for Proclus, and when dressed as the Christian Trinity, for Cusanus and Hegel. They comprise, for all three ‘the underlying principle of all triadic structures’6.

Proclus’ discussion of the triad of triads in Chapters XXIV-XXVI is also significant with regard to the organisation of the three books in both Cusanus’ De docta ignorantia and Hegel’s Encyclopaedia

Of the first triad

the father is the father of intellect, and that intellect is the intellect of the father…For deity is the father of the triad, and being is the intellect of this deity. …The first triad therefore is called one being…The first triad…is…unfolded to us7

Of the second triad which derives its completion from parts (multiplicity), whereas the first triad is a wholeness prior to parts

the second triad proceeds, being characterised by the first intelligible power…For all things being united and without distinction in the first triad, distinction and separation shine forth in this triad. Being also and power are more divided from each other.8

And of the third triad

all intelligible multitude shines forth…a wholeness consisting of many parts.9

The first triad is a union, the second is a separation and the third is a combination of perspectival parts in unity, power and being. In the third triad, the one and being are multiplied through an infinite multitude of collective power which is the same as the all-perfect. This infinity is both of power and multitude.

I have referred to Hegel’s praise in the superlative for Proclus’ ‘more precise definition of the idea in its three forms,’10 giving a real trinity, which Hegel noted is set out in his Platonic Theology, and his description of it (11.3.6). Proclus and Cusanus

Moffitt Watts summarised the relations between Cusanus, Platonism and earlier Neoplatonism

The dialectics of unity and plurality, of the one and the many, of the not-other and otherness that (Cusanus) comes to use in his metaphysical discussions must have grown out of his reading of the Parmenides itself, as well as out of the works of the great Neoplatonic synthesiser, Proclus, and those of various twelfth century Platonists.11

Cusanus discussed Proclus’ triad in De venatione sapientiae (‘On the Pursuit of Wisdom’), noting the same developmental flow Hegel did – from the Creator-Intellect to diversity and that the first requirement for intelligibility is existence.

Proclus…called the cause of beings a second god, viz., the Creator-Intellect. ([This second god is] subsequent to the first God of gods, whom Proclus affirmed to be the singular Good, as I said.) Proclus believed this Creator-Intellect to be Jove, the king and ruler over all things. Proclus also posited celestial gods and mundane gods and various other likewise eternal gods, according as he expressed these matters extensively in his six-book work The Theology of Plato. Nevertheless, at the head of all [these other gods] he placed the God-of-gods, the universal Cause of all things. And so, those attributes which we ascribe to our good God—attributes which are different [from one another] only in conception and not in reality—Proclus is seen to assert of different gods, because of differing distinctions among the attributes. [For] he was moved by [the consideration that] nothing is intelligible unless it actually exists, since, necessarily, being is participated in by what is intelligible. And so, everything that is understood, he affirmed to [really] exist.12 Cusanus and Hegel overlaid the Christian Trinity on Proclus’ triad, exploring its theological and philosophical potential

As with Hegel’s philosophy, Cusanus’ equates theology and philosophy. Cusanus’ De docta ignorantia and Hegel’s Encyclopaedia entail philosophical reflections on the Neoplatonic process in its application – they consider its working when applied to the world and to the religious beliefs they advocate. Christian faith and its ideal practice is to further anchor in the world a philosophy already oriented to it.

Both are studies in Neoplatonic emanation and return applied to the Trinity. Where the former develops from maximum absolutum (Book I/God) to maximum contractum (Book II/the universe) to maximum simul contractum et absolutum (Book III/Christ, concluding with the church of the Spirit), the latter develops from absolute objectivity (Science of Logic/God) to finite objectivity (Philosophy of Nature/Christ) to absolute objectivity in finite subjectivity (Philosophy of Spirit/God present and active in his community).

Where Cusanus explored the trinity of Oneness, Equality-of-Oneness and their Union in De docta ignorantia, he explored the philosophical potential of these relationships in different ways in his other treatises including God as ‘not-other’ in De li non aliud and God as ‘actualised possibility’ in De possest. 

Hegel, following Cusanus, derived from his overlay of the Trinity across Proclus’ triad his logic (the ‘science’ of the Idea in and for itself), the philosophy of nature (the ‘science’ of the Idea in its otherness) and the philosophy of Spirit (the ‘science’ of the Idea come back to itself out of that otherness), his three Kingdoms (the kingdom of the Father, that of the Son [encompassing differentiation, estrangement and reconciliation whereby the world is created, falls into evil and is redeemed] and the kingdom of the Spirit [concerning the formation of the community of faith and its orientation to the perfection of all things in God]) and his three syllogisms of Universal (the logical Idea is the principle of universality), Particular (nature is the principle of particularity) and Individual (finite Spirit is the principle of singularity) – a triadic structure of further triadic and spiritual essences13. After §567-§570 on universality, particularity and individuality in his Philosophy of Mind/Spirit, Hegel wrote ‘These three syllogisms, constituting the one syllogism of the absolute self-mediation of spirit, are the revelation of that spirit whose life is set out as a cycle of concrete shapes in pictorial thought.’14 How successful were both in bringing their treatment of the Trinity into sync with Proclus’ triad?

Just as Hegel had two ‘bites of the cherry’ with the Neoplatonic One, exploiting its philosophical and prose poetic potential both as the first hypostasis and as the one Being in the second, so he used Christ – unconvincingly – in his philosophy – first in his Philosophy of Nature as Nature,15 then in his Philosophy of Mind/Spirit as, in death, the means of our reconciliation with (return to) God in the perspectival cultus of Spirit.

Cusanus made Christ the subject of the third book of De docta ignorantia, assigning the first book to God and the second to the created universe – reflecting the primary philosophical elements and flow of Proclus’ triad. While both De docta ignorantia and Hegel’s Encyclopaedia conclude in a perspectival cultus and the conclusion of Cusanus’ treatise, though fundamentally Neoplatonic, is consistent with Christian belief, Hegel, on the other hand, drops all pretence and steps forward as the philosopher he was.

At the very point where Christ should have served a most important function in his Philosophy of Mind/Spirit (as he did in De docta ignorantia), he is nowhere to be seen. Christ has no part in Hegel’s concluding sections. What we see in §§575-577 in the Philosophy of Mind/Spirit is the overt triad of Proclus16 now elevated to Logic, Mind (which Hegel wrote in §576 ‘presupposes Nature and couples it with the Logical principle’17) and Idea.

Prior to his closing quotation from the Metaphysics regarding thought thinking itself and what Aristotle thought God is, Hegel’s closing sentence in his Philosophy of Mind/Spirit and to his Encyclopaedia is

The eternal Idea, in full fruition of its essence, eternally sets itself to work, engenders and enjoys itself as absolute Mind.18

For Hegel, God is now ‘apprehended as spirit in his community’19 and Idea sets itself to work – in a purely Neoplatonic cultus.



1. Proclus was emphatic on this point and made it numerous times. See 7.2: ‘For the one being does not abide purely in an hyparxis void of multitude and possessing the form of one. But the one itself is exempt from every addition. For by whatever you may add to it, you will diminish its supreme and ineffable union. Hence it is necessary to arrange the one prior to the one being, and to suspend the one being from that which is one alone. For if the one and the one being were the same, and it made no difference to say one and being (since if they differed, the one would again be changed from the one being,) if therefore the one differs in no respect from the one being, all things will be one, and there will not be multitude in beings, nor will it be possible to denominate things, lest there should be two things, the thing and the name. …the one and the one being are not the same.’ Proclus, On the Theology of Plato, op. cit., Bk. III, Ch. XX
2. Proclus, On the Theology of Plato, op. cit., Bk. III, Ch. XII
3. Ibid., Ch. XIII
4. Ibid., Ch. XIV
5. Christoph Helmig, Carlos Steel, ‘Proclus,’ Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/proclus/
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid., Ch. XXIV
8. Ibid., Ch. XXV
9. Ibid., Ch. XXVI
10. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. II, 342
11. Moffitt Watts, Nicolaus Cusanus, A Fifteenth-Century Vision of Man, op, cit., 22
12. Nicholas of Cusa, De venatione sapientiae (‘On the Pursuit of Wisdom’), 1462-3, in Nicholas of Cusa: Metaphysical Speculations, Six Latin Texts Translated into English, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1998, 1278-1354, 8, 21
13. ‘the characteristic feature of the Notion and its determinations (is that they are) spiritual essences.’ Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, op. cit., 685. That Hegel rejected formal. propositional argumentation from the ‘reason’ he advocated – that of Vernunft – can be seen in his position on the dialectical syllogism ‘Everything is a syllogism, a universal that through particularity is united with individuality; but it is certainly not a whole consisting of three propositions.’ Ibid., 669; ‘It is thus the Notion of the syllogism that declares the imperfection of the formal syllogism in which the middle term is fixedly held, not as unity of the extremes but as a formal, abstract determination qualitatively distinct from them.’ Ibid., 683
14. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 299-301
15. Hegel wrote ‘Nature is the son of God, but not as the Son, but as abiding otherness’ (my italics) followed immediately by Neoplatonic vitalism ‘in Nature, Spirit lets itself go, a Bacchic god unrestrained and unmindful of itself; in Nature, the unity of the Notion is concealed.’ Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, op. cit., 14.
16. §575 ‘It is this appearing which originally gives the motive of the further development. The first appearance is formed by the syllogism, which is based on the Logical system as starting-point, with Nature for the middle term which couples the Mind with it. The Logical principle turns to Nature and Nature to Mind.’ Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 314
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid., 315
19. Ibid., 292

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