As Radek Chlup argues in his recent monograph on Proclus, later Neoplatonists such as Iamblichus and Proclus seem at first glance to present a more pessimistic account of the soul’s abilities than that of Plotinus who thought of the “higher soul” as freely able to navigate between different levels of ontological reality. For Plotinus the higher soul remains in the intellectual realm while the lower soul descends into the body. Thus, the material aspect of human existence is merely a hindrance to perfection and contemplative virtue is promoted as the only means of “escaping from here.” For Iamblichus and Proclus there is no higher undescended soul and the intelligible universe does not exist within the soul. Chlup explains that, although this divergence from the teaching of the original “father” of Neoplatonism may seem pessimistic, things are not as they may seem on the surface:
At first sight, the Neoplatonic approach [of later Neoplatonists] may appear rather pessimistic. While Plotinus had the entire universe at his fee, so to speak, and was able to pass through its various levels freely, starting with Iamblichus philosophers were ‘imprisoned’ on the psychic level, having no access to the higher ones. In fact, however, their position implies no pessimism whatsoever, and in some regards it is actually optimistic. Above all, eastern Neoplatonists have a much more positive relation towards the corporeal world. Plotinus’ identification with his ‘higher self’ established in the intelligible world caused our philosopher to show little concern for what goes on at the corporeal level. It is symptomatic that Plotinus has a very negative conception of matter, regarding it as the ultimate source of all evil. Late Neoplatonists cannot afford such a view or the simple reason that they have nowhere to escape from bodily reality. According to them, humans are mediators between the intelligible and the sensible world, and they have no choice but to take seriously both of them … A soul of this kind … should combine its contemplative activity with active providential care for things in this world. – Chlup, Proclus: An Introduction, (Oxford: 2012), 28, 29.
Thus, these later Neoplatonists, though they held a more pessimistic view of the soul, actually were more optimistic about the “hylemorphê” or the united body-soul composite that is the essence of a human. This also reflects a more optimistic metaphysics with regard the gods and their relation to the material world. According to Proclus:
[The soul] wants to imitate the providential care of the gods; it is for this reason that it abandons its contemplation. For divine perfection is of two kinds: one is intellective, the other providential; the former consists in rest, the latter in motion. This being so, the soul imitates the intellective and unswerving stability of the gods by its contemplation, but their providence and motion by its life in the world of generation. – In Tim. III 324.6-12; Chlup, 245.
And, of course, Proclus’s more optimistic view of the hylemorphê and of the gods corresponds to a more civic oriented virtue ethic. Since human reality is ultimately a dualistic unity of mind and matter and because man desires to imitate the providential actions of the gods, so his contemplation will always return to bodily action, from which one might say it never truly departed. Proclus explains:
Moreover, since virtue is not one and indivisible but multifarious, we must understand that providence always incites us to ever different projections of our reason-principles, in order that the virtuous person might realize all possible modes of virtue and be shown as its true champion in the eyes of those who have arranged the contest of virtue [i.e., the gods]. For this reason providence often brings externally active people to rest, making the intellect within them revert on itself, but it moves to actions those who only look inside themselves; in this way it teaches us what form virtue has and that it is of two aspects. This is why providence gives us various tools but then takes back again what it has given: by making human lives variegated it challenges good people to actualize their dispositions in all possible manners, training them in this way to administer this universe together with the gods. – De dec. dub. 37.9-20; Chlup, 249.