Proclus on the Parallel Postulate

The fact that the fifth postulate of Euclid was considered unsatisfactory comes from the period not long after it was proposed. Posidonius, Ptolemy, Proclus and others tried either to prove the postulate from the others or to replace it with another they deemed more satisfactory.

We give below an extract from Proclus concerning the parallel postulate, but first let us quote the Postulates from Book I of Euclid's Elements:-


Let the following be postulated:

1. To draw a straight line from any point to any point.

2. To produce a finite straight line continuously in a straight line.

3. T o describe a circle with any centre and distance.

4. That all right angles are equal to one another.

S. That, if a straight line falling on two straight lines make the interior angles on the same side less than two right angles, the two straight lines, if produced indefinitely, meet on that side on which are the angles less than the two right angles.

Proclus Diadochus, in his Commentary on Euclid's Elements, discusses the Parallel Postulate. The following extract is taken from his commentary on Book I:-


The Parallel Postulate

This [fifth postulate] ought even to be struck out of the Postulates altogether; for it is a theorem involving many difficulties which Ptolemy, in a certain book, set himself to solve, and it requires for the demonstration of it a number of definitions as well as theorems. And the converse of it is actually proved by Euclid himself as a theorem. It may be that some would be deceived and would think it proper to place even the assumption in question among the postulates as affording, in the lessening of the two right angles, ground for such an instantaneous belief that the straight lines converge and meet. To such as these Geminus correctly replied that we have learned from the very pioneers of this science not to have any regard to mere plausible imaginings when it is a question of the reasonings to be included in our geometrical doctrine. For Aristotle says that it is as justifiable to ask scientific proofs of a rhetorician as to accept mere plausibilities from a geometer; and Simmias is made by Plato to say that he recognizes as quacks those who fashion for themselves proofs from probabilities. So in this case the fact that, when the right angles are lessened, the straight lines converge is true and necessary; but the statement that, since they converge more and more as they are produced, they will sometime meet is plausible but not necessary, in the absence of some argument showing that this is true in the case of straight lines. For the fact that some lines exist which approach indefinitely, but yet remain non-secant, although it seems improbable and paradoxical, is nevertheless true and fully ascertained with regard to other species of lines [for example curves like the hyperbola that has asymptotes]. May not then the same thing be possible in the case of straight lines that happens in the case of the lines referred to? Indeed, until the statement in the Postulate is clinched by proof, the facts shown in the case of other lines may direct our imagination the opposite way. And, though the controversial arguments against the meeting of the straight lines should contain much that is surprising, is there not all the more reason why we should expel from our body of doctrine this merely plausible and unreasoned (hypothesis)?

It is then clear from this that we must seek a proof of the present theorem, and that it is alien to the special character of Postulates. But how it should be proved, and by what sort of arguments the objections taken to it should be removed, we must explain at the point where the writer of the Elements is actually about to recall it and use it as obvious. It will be necessary at that stage to show that its obvious character does not appear independently of proof, but is turned by proof into matter of knowledge.


JOC/EFR August 2006

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