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- Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.
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Inventions by Diamond, based on the ideas of Diamond Fields Mr. But Dionysius devotes his second theological treatise, entitled On the Divine Names only to a particular kind of divine name.
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This kind of name describes a third distinction within the godhead in addition to the distinction of persons and of personal attributes : the distinction into the multiple attributes of the godhead as a whole. Though the names apply to the godhead as a whole, and so refer to it as a unity, each name is different and so, taken together, they differentiate the godhead. The implicit distinction between the unity of the godhead and the multiplicity of the names is reflected in the very structure of the names themselves. But each name is different, indicating the self-multiplication of the godhead.
On the other hand, when the names are used only of God as cause, the prefixes may be left off, since the causality of God is already a procession into the differentiation properly signified by each of the different names. Instead, the most proper object of the names is the highest creature. The intelligible names could form the ground of a theology independent of any specific religious tradition or sacred text.
Many of them are central to Platonic sources outside the context of Christianity, and appear only incidentally and obscurely in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. They also describe the intelligible structure of the cosmos, a structure that is accessible to all human inquiry, whether assisted by scriptural texts or not. But Dionysius explicitly denies that the names may be acquired from any source other than the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
Since the cause of that structure is beyond the grasp of human inquiry, we cannot rely on our own powers for our description. We depend instead on the revelation of the scriptures as our source for the intelligible names. Few human beings have the ability to contemplate the intelligible names in their purity. Most of us require the names to be incarnated in visible things before we can understand them.
Such a person can then become the means by which we contemplate the intelligible. But Hierotheus may do more than incarnate the names. As he describes it, the name unfolds itself into a form that is more multiple, because of the many words used in his description. It thus approaches the multiple character of our ordinary human way of knowing, and becomes more easily understood.
Other names directly refer to visible things, whose multiplicity and accessibility to sensation make them easy for us to understand. Their literal signification is restricted to the realm of the sensuous, and so they must be turned into metaphors if they are to become useful for theology.
Though the work itself is not extant, we find him undertaking the same project in each of his extant works. If we are to apply such terms to God, they must be attached to a foreign, intelligible content that will be able to lead the interpreter of the symbolic name to the contemplation of an intelligible name. The very materiality and ignobility of the dissimilar similarities cry out that the names do not literally describe the godhead, and compel the reader to seek the intelligible truth behind the name.
Dionysius repeatedly affirms their necessity, not because of the character of their content, but because of the nature of the human soul. The soul may be divided into two parts: one passionate and the other passionless. Passionate here means set in motion by things exterior to the soul. The senses, for example, are passionate because they can only function when an outside object gives them something to sense. Dionysius follows a longstanding Neoplatonic tradition when he says that most of us are unable to engage our passionless part directly.
Instead, our passionless part comes into play only indirectly, through the activity of the passionate part. By sensing the world around us, we are led to contemplate its intelligible structures through the sensations we receive. Even those few human beings who can engage their passionless part directly find it helpful to shore up their contemplation with examples drawn from the senses.
Such examples do not require the presence of a revealed scripture. Skilled teachers in any subject are characterized by their ability to come up with helpful examples drawn from ordinary experience when explaining a difficult intelligible truth. The scriptural symbol goes further, attempting to reveal the God who is before and beyond even the intelligible truth. The highest human intellect has little ability to attain this truth directly, and so we cannot rely on intellectual teachers as guides to that truth.
We require the gift of symbols, which tie our ordinary comprehension to the godhead beyond being. And so Dionysius does not describe the symbolic names as pedagogical tools developed by theologians. The names appear instead in the ecstatic visions of the prophets. Though Dionysius explicitly asserts our dependence on the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as the source of these symbols, he has no qualms about embellishing the list of names with symbols drawn from other traditions. The Mystical Theology has this last, most arcane form of theology as its subject.
Negations are properly applied not only to the names of the symbolic theology. Any and all of the divine names must be negated, beginning with those of the symbolic theology, continuing with the intelligible names and concluding with the theological representations. A privation is simply the absence of a given predicate that could just as easily be present.
For this reason, Dionysius says that our affirmations of the godhead are not opposed to our negations, but that both must be transcended: even the negations must be negated.
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The most controversial and arcane passages of the Mystical Theology revolve around the mystical as taken in itself and not as the act of negating the other forms of theology. Dionysius says that after all speaking, reading, and comprehending of the names ceases, there follows a divine silence, darkness, and unknowing. All three of these characteristics seem privative, as though they were simply being the absence of speech, sight, and knowledge respectively. But Dionysius does not treat them as privative.
Instead, he uses temporal and spatial language to mark off a special place and time for them. The darkness is located above the mountain, and Moses enters it after his contemplation of God in the various forms of theology. Dionysius leaves the relation between Moses and the darkness highly obscure. Some commentators reduce it to a form of knowing, albeit an extraordinary form of knowing. Others reduce it to a form of affective experience, in which Moses feels something that he can never know or explain in words.
Dionysius himself does not give decisive evidence in favor of either interpretive move. The Mystical Theology suggests an ascent from the lower sensuous realm of reality through the intelligible intermediate realm to the darkness of the godhead itself, all accomplished by a single person. The hierarchic treatises, on the other hand, suggest that the sensible and intelligible realms are not places reached by a single being, but different kinds of beings, and that the vision of God is handed from being to being downward through the levels of the hierarchy.
On the Celestial Hierarchy describes the intelligible realm as divided into nine ranks of beings: the seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, powers, authorities, principalities, archangels, and angels. On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy describes the human beings within the church as divided into eight ranks: the hierarchs or bishops, priests, deacons, monks, laity, catechumens, penitents, and the demon-possessed. The hierarchs, highest within the human hierarchy, contemplate the intelligible realm directly, though presumably they contemplate only its lowest level: the angels.
Since the hierarchs are able to contemplate the intelligible directly, they do not perform the rites for their own sake, but for the sake of the monks and laity, who have no capacity for direct intelligible contemplation. The monks and laity are able to engage the passionless part of their souls only through the passionate part, and so they require a visible trigger—the symbol—to stimulate their intelligible contemplation.
The ranks of hierarch, priest, and deacon are in charge of administering the rites, with a specific set of initiates in their care and a specific action to perform. The deacons purify the catechumens, penitents, and possessed, primarily by giving them ethical instruction.
The priests illuminate the laity, who are able to receive the intelligible truth. The hierarchs perfect, a task whose initiate seems ideally to be the monk, since Dionysius identifies the monks as leading the more perfect life of those who are not explicitly consecrated as clergy. The very structure of the church reflects the different roles of the clergy and the laity.
He enters the nave of the church only to bring sacred objects like incense, bread and wine, and holy oil into the realm of multiplicity, the spatially extended nave. When he brings the censer into the nave, for example, its fragrance is distributed to the laity there, just as the bread and wine are later distributed in the eucharistic rite. The hierarch then returns to the altar, and takes up again his own proper object of contemplation, the intelligible source of the rites.
The laity, on the other hand, remain within the spatially extended nave, but orient themselves toward the altar, where the sacred objects are raised for their contemplation. Before this contemplation can occur, the catechumens, penitents, and the demon-possessed must be removed from the church. Their orientation toward the material prevents them from adequately contemplating the intelligible truth through its visible manifestation in the sacred objects. Although the rites have intelligible contemplation as their goal, it does not appear that non-ritual forms of contemplation, like reading, can substitute for participation in the rites.
Dionysian contemplation is public, so that it may unite us to each other; it involves prayer, so that it may unite us explicitly with the godhead; it also requires bodies, since only the interaction of bodies allows the contemplative act to include both components of our nature: body and soul. Although the rites involve the performance of bodily actions, they clothe themselves in words: the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and the oral tradition of the liturgical prayers.
Only the silence and unknowing of the Mystical Theology finds no clear place within the liturgical rites of the hierarchy, since it transcends both the visible rites of the laity and the intelligible contemplation of the clergy. It may be that, just as some points of the liturgy call for a literal silence, the intelligible contemplation of the hierarch at the altar must engage in its own form of silence, so as to allow the appearance of the godhead beyond naming.
On this question, however, Dionysius is as silent as the mystical theology which crowns his vision of the human ascent to God. To this end Dionysius employs some major Neoplatonic insights: 1 The abiding—procession—return or conversion of all things as the creative and receptive expression of what it means for anything created to be. This is a way of expressing the vertical connectedness of everything by identity, difference, and the overcoming of difference by a return to identity that constitutes the nature of anything that is caused.
A rock or a worm, for instance, is a window upon the entire universe if you only know how to look. In the case of 2 hierarchy and divine presence , Dionysius emphasizes, much more so than the impression often suggested by Neoplatonism, the directness of creation. Every being, no matter where it is placed in the scale of beings and no matter how dependent it might be on beings ontologically higher than it e. He therefore links in a new way God as unrestricted being with God as utterly beyond being or any determinate predications.
At the same time in the DN he argues that the ecstasy of love, which moves as a unifying force through creation without departing from itself, is the divine nature. Is this small detail and transposition merely accidental? It may well be, but in this context, the use of such a verb and thought is not accidental. Dionysius does not write as a Christian walled off from pagan thought or as if he were a Neoplatonic thinker in Christian disguise.
Instead he provokes and delights in intertextuality at every point. Dionysius makes concrete and accessible the whole world of Neoplatonism in the human, but sacramental life of the Church, a world of ordinary people and things whose significance can only be fully realized and perfected in the celestial and supercelestial world. For Classical Neoplatonism, especially in its Plotinian form, the real truths that undergird or form the origins, beginnings archai of the world of ordinary experience are the three hypostases or realities of soul, intellect, and the One. The hypostases are necessary, above all, to account for our experience of degrees of unity and organization.
The life-world accessible to our senses is an organized, animated world, and this needs a more intensive degree of unity to account for it, namely, the principle of life, that is, soul and all souls. And the same is true even to a higher degree of intellect. Each is a sort of holographic reality. And because intellect is still a world despite its more intensive unity than soul, it requires a unity beyond intellect and beyond being to organize it and to form the groundless ground of its own being from which it has emerged. So 1 in Neoplatonism, there are 3 hypostases, on the one hand, namely, soul, intellect, and the One, and four cosmic or hypercosmic dimensions, on the other: i the sensible world as a world of things; ii the sensible world linked by the soul to the intelligible world; iii the intelligible world itself composed of all intellects; and finally iv the One or the Good, from which everything has come.
This is equally true in both Plotinus and Proclus. What Dionysius manages to do is both to capture this spirit profoundly, and, therefore, transform it, as well as to make it concrete and accessible in the scriptural, sacramental, and ordinary experiences of Christian practitioners. Instead of the 4 dimensions of the Neoplatonic universe, Dionysius has the following: 1 the sensible world or Legal hierarchy, i.
For Dionysius as for Plato , law is necessary, but still deficient. Then 2 there follows the ecclesiastical hierarchy, namely, the sensible world as the limbs of the mystical body of Christ led by soul into the significance of the intelligible or celestial hierarchy, where the symbols can begin to be read. Its mysteries, both sensible and intelligible, are the Scriptures and the Sacraments, its initiators the priests, and its initiated the ones who receive them.
From this perspective, Dionysius transforms Neoplatonism radically but at the same time provokes entirely new possibilities in the structures he transforms. Dionysius presents us with complex affirmative kataphatic and negative apophatic forms of theology, exploring what we can say about God, what we mean by our statements, discovering the necessity for us to talk too much about God and to push language forms to their breaking points, and then to see what we cannot say about God. Negation is important here at both levels, in kataphatic theology as well as in apophatic theology.
This complex theory of signification and its subversion is often referred to as negative theology: affirming our affirmations, then negating them, and then negating the negations to ensure that we do not make an idol out of a God about whom we know nothing. But it is also much more than this. Dionysius is practising forms of theological meditation in the sense that the earlier Church Fathers had understood this, not as a type of objectified, academic knowledge, but rather as a more complex, intersubjective form of address, communion and contemplation.
Iamblichus, for instance, had denied that pure thought or contemplation could bring about union with the divine. But Dionysius does not understand theurgy in this way. Even the lowest things cannot simply be despised, for even in their dissimilarity from the divine, they bear the capacity to signify the divine more appropriately than supposedly worthier images. If we say God is good, we run the risk of thinking we know entirely what we mean and consequently of closing off a thought that has to be radically open-ended, if not altogether subverted.
So the Psalmist who uses the worm image hides the sacred from those who would defile it with a lack of understanding and yet points to the sacred in a new way. There are several consequences of this. In theology, we are learning how to praise, to hymn —not to catalogue—God.
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In the EH , for instance, in the triad catechumen the one undergoing purification , sponsor or confirmed Christian the one being illumined , and hierarch the one being perfected and enlightening according to the traditional triadic form: purification—illumination—perfection , the sponsor first introduces the catechumen and both sponsor and catechumen are then mediated by the work of the hierarch. In addition, Dionysius regards his own task as a kind of demonstration apodeixis or showing deixai. Paul 1 Cor 2—4. In other words, Dionysius here sees scripture as providing the basis for a deeper understanding of attribution or predication that will lead us beyond our own merely human capacities.
EH a ff. In sum, Dionysius represents the instantaneous resonances, possible in unusual circumstances, between forms of thought and practice that may at first sight appear entirely divergent. He is therefore in some respects a dangerous thinker, yet at the same time a forger of new possibilities:. For the long commentary tradition, from John of Scythopolis to Aquinas and Ficino, see bibliography 2 below. Gregory the Great refers to Dionysius in his own commentary on the angels and probably had the complete works at Rome.
But the study of Dionysius did not take off in the Latin West until the Byzantine emperor Michael the Stammerer sent a copy of the Dionysian corpus as a gift to the Frankish king Louis the Pious in This copy served as the source of the first translations of Dionysius into Latin.
The first translation, made around by Hilduin, abbot of a monastery near Paris who identified Dionysius not only as St. Dionysius the Areopagite but also as the first bishop of Paris , was so unintelligible that Charles II asked the great Irish philosopher, John Scottus Eriugena, to make a new translation that he completed in and that was subsequently revised with clarifications in