JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus Confessor, and John of Damascus.

§ 72.

1. The blending of Neo-Platonic with Christian notions is carried to the highest point in the writings attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite. The works of this author which have come down to us are a treatise De Divinis Nominibus, the Theologia Mystica, and the books De Coelesti et Ecclesiastica Hierarchia, as well as ten "Letters." Other writings of the same author, to which allusion is made in the works we have quoted, amongst which is a Theologia Symbolica, have been lost. Critics are now agreed that these writings are not the work of the St. Dionysius the Areopagite, of whom mention is made in the Acts of the Apostles, but of an anonymous writer who lived, most probably, in the latter decades of the fifth century, and who published his writings under the name of St. Dionysius, in order to secure them a greater notoriety.

2. The writings in question are mentioned for the first time in the Monophysite controversy. The Severians, a moderate section of the Monophysites, had, by command of the Emperor Justinian, held a conference with certain Catholic bishops at Constantinople, and in the conference they made appeal to the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, in defence of their peculiar Monophysite doctrines. But the spokesman of the Catholic bishops, Hypatius, at once questioned their genuineness. No further dispute was for a time raised on this subject, and the works in question came eventually to be held in high estimation. This was particularly the case when the Popes Gregory, Martin, and Agatho quoted them in their writings. A commentary on these writings, composed by Maximus Confessor, a man of approved orthodoxy, contributed still more to establish them as authoritative, In the middle ages they were translated by Scotus Erigena, and thenceforward their influence was still further enhanced. The Scholastics as well as the Mystics, drew largely upon them, and the most remarkable of the Scholastic writers not only quoted them freely, but even wrote lengthened commentaries upon them.

3. The influence of Neo-Platonism is specially prominent in these treatises. For the most part they follow Plotinus, but there also appears in them evidence of the influence of later members of the same school, such as Iamblichus and Proclus, with both of whom they concur in exalting the One, not merely above the Existent, but also above the Good. Regarded from the standpoint of orthodox Faith, they are capable of an interpretation which is compatible with orthodox belief, and in this sense they were interpreted by the Christian teachers who undertook to explain them. But if the Neo-Platonic views contained in them were strongly insisted on, they might easily give occasion to many errors -- a result to which, in later times they did, in fact, lead.

4. According to the teaching of "Dionysius," God is exalted above all being, and above all qualifications of being, infinite in his self-existence. No predicates, therefore, can be attributed to Him, in the sense in which they are attributed to created objects. For God there is no name, no concept; His inaccessible Being is lifted above all names and above all concepts; the notion of the Good itself is not one with the notion of the Godhead, the latter transcends the notion of the Good as all others. God is transcendent being, transcendently good, transcendently perfect. He is, therefore, in the strict sense of the word, the Ineffable. Transcending, as he does, all being and all perfection, He is beyond the range of every intellect, and every faculty of knowledge.{1}

5. Though God is exalted above all being and above all qualities of being, He is, nevertheless, the cause of all being; and since the cause must include in itself a priori whatever is in the effect, He must include in Himself all the perfections that belong to existent being. But we must not predicate these perfections of Him in the sense in which we predicate them of created objects, but in a far higher meaning. All the while, we must remember these predicates do not give us knowledge of God as He is in Himself; in this respect He is above all predicates. In using terms of this kind, we are merely endeavouring to bring God nearer to ourselves, we employ them to gain some glimpse of the transcendent being of God, and to state in some way our knowledge.

6. We must, in accordance with these principles, distinguish two kinds of theology -- a positive and a negative. The positive or affirmative theology attributes all perfections to God, represents Him as infinitely wise, just, good, etc. The negative theology, on the other hand, denies all such perfections in God, and aims at comprehending that being which absolutely transcends predicates of all and every kind. If we compare together these two kinds of theology, we shall find the negative to be unquestionably the more excellent; for by this method we make the nearest approach to understanding God in His exaltation above all other things. But negative theology itself is not the highest; for the exalted being of God not only transcends positive predicates, it transcends negative predicates also; they do not give us knowledge of God as He is in Himself. The highest theology of all, as we shall presently see, is mystical theology.

7. All created things have ideal existence in God. The Holy Scripture styles ideas, as they exist in God, proorismous. These ideas are not merely archetypes of things, they are formative forces as well. By means of these ideas, created things come forth from God in their actual reality. This issuing of all things from God is thus explained: God in His transcendent elevation cannot allow His goodness to be unproductive; the infinite goodness of God overflowed, as it were, and God, without losing His transcendental state and His absolute unity, diffused Himself through the universe of things, all of which, in their fashion, were thus made to partake of the Divine Being. A voice is heard by many ears, and a light is seen by many eyes, but, though thus diffused, the light and voice do not lose themselves while thus spread: so it is with the diffusion of the Divine Being in things created.

8. The further doctrines which "Dionysius" lays down with regard to creation are in accordance with these views. He asserts that, in creation, God multiplied Himself, in a certain sense, without however losing His unity; that, without ceasing to exist in Himself, He went out of Himself, as it were, and diffused Himself through the multitudinous objects of creation; that God is the universal being, that He exists in everything, and comes into being in everything. "Dionysius" even asserts that the being of all things is no other than the transcendental being of God. This notwithstanding, God, according to his view, is not a portion of the universe, nor anything existing in the universe; admitting no admixture of any extraneous element, God stands aloof from the universe, and maintains Himself eternally in this transcendental state. Just as the sun sheds its light over everything outside itself, so does God diffuse His goodness through all things, without prejudice to His unity or His transcendent elevation.

9. And as all things issue from God, so do all things tend to return to Him again. The reason of this, too, is to be found in His goodness. In virtue of His infinite goodness all things go forth from God; in virtue of this same goodness He attracts them to Himself again. God's goodness diffuses itself in all things, but in thus diffusing itself it forms a bond which attaches all things to God -- a chain which binds them all to Him. God is at once the first cause and final end of all things, and He is the one and the other because of His infinite goodness.

10. It will be observed that this doctrine, which makes all things issue from God, borders very closely on the Emanation theory of the Neo-Platonists. It is true that "Dionysius" holds fast to the principle that things did not exist before they issued from God, and thus distinctly asserts that Creation had a beginning. We are, therefore, justified in giving a favourable interpretation to the formulas of Neo-Platonism in which he has embodied the Christian notions; and we may regard the principle that the being of things is the transcendental being of God, as applied only to the ideal being of things. But it is clear that doctrines thus formulated may give rise to very serious misconceptions, and may lead to very dangerous consequences. Of this we shall have proof later.

11. In consonance with these, the fundamental principles of his system, -- "Dionysius," in his work De Coelesti et Ecclesiastica Hierarchia, makes God the centre of the spheres which are formed by the orders of created things. Around the Divine centre creatures arrange themselves, so to speak, in concentric circles; in such fashion, however, that these circles represent ever diminishing grades of perfection, the diminution in perfection being proportioned to the distance from the common centre. This gradually descending scheme of concentric orders of being is so bound together that each degree exerts a purifying, illuminating, and perfecting influence on that which stands immediately beneath it, and in this way unites it with one common centre. This arrangement of the orders of being, the vital relation thus established between them, is styled by "Dionysius," the "Hierarchy of Things"

12. "Dionysius" farther distinguishes between the celestial and the ecclesiastical hierarchies. The former is constituted by the three orders of angels -- the first consisting of the Thrones, the Seraphim, and the Cherubim; the second of the Dominations, the Virtues, the Powers; and the third of the Principalities, the Archangels, and the Angels. The ecclesiastical hierarchy, on the other hand, consists of Priests and People, each division being sub-divided into three orders. The former is divided into Bishops, Priests, and Ceremonial Ministers, of which the last is the purifying, the second the illuminating, and the third the perfecting order. The hierarchy, of the Laics consists of the perfect (the Monks), the sanctified laity, and the people unsanctified. In this way is constituted the scheme of hierarchical life -- a scheme which is founded upon and determined by the Sacraments. Highest in the hierarchical system, and centre of the whole, is Christ. The ultimate purpose of this hierarchical arrangement is the deification or divinisation of man -- a purpose which is achieved by mystical elevation.

13. To raise himself to this mystical eminence, in other words, to attain to immediate contemplation of God, man must rise above all things sensuous and supersensuous, above the existent and the non-existent; must reduce all his cognitive faculties, whether of sense or intellect, to absolute inaction, and, in this sacred silence, immerse himself in the primal Divine Unity, and bury himself in the gloom of the Divine Being. This is that "Sacred Ignorance" which is the highest form of knowledge. It is by not knowing God, that is, by making abstraction from all attributes whether positive or negative, and by thus representing God to ourselves in His absolute incomprehensibility, that we attain the highest knowledge granted to the human mind: God as He is in His transcendental being, as He is in Himself. The divine light has shrouded itself with the creatures that have proceeded from it, as with a veil, but in this mystical process we penetrate the veil and approach the eternal light in which God dwells. In this state man is deified. The whole teaching of "Dionysius" culminates in mysticism.

14. Maximus Confessor (580-662), followed the teaching of "Dionysius" on the one hand, and of Gregory of Nyssa on the other. He was one of the most learned and subtle theologians of his time, and defended the orthodox faith against the Monothelites as well as against the so-called Ecthesis of the Emperor Heradius. Under Constans II. he suffered cruel tortures for his faith, and was then sent into exile, where he died at an advanced age. He was the author of several works, of a Commentary on the writings of "Dionysius Areopagita," Quaestiones in Scripturam, a Mystagogia, and others. The greater part of his works were published by Combefisius (Paris, 1675).

15. The opinions of Maximus, with regard to the mystical life, deserve special mention. In order to rise to the mystical state, the soul must free itself wholly from the things of sense, it must then "pass beyond all thought of the existent and the non-existent; detach itself wholly from its own faculties, and from the supersensuous faculty of thought; then may it become united with God who is above all rational thought." This union is not so much an activity of soul as a passivity, for it is caused entirely by the action of divine grace -- a notion which was put already forward by "Dionysius the Areopagite." In the present life this union is not attainable in its perfection, it can be consummated only in the life to come. With this doctrine Maximus counects the theory of the final restitution of all souls, with regard to which he adopts the peculiar views of Gregory of Nyssa. The means of accomplishing this end are furnished by the Incarnation of Christ; the Incarnation is the climax of divine revelation, and would therefore, have taken place had there been no fall of man by sin.

16. The last of the Greek Ecclesiastical writers who claims a place in the history of Philosophy is the monk Joannes Damascenus. He was born at Damascus in Syria, towards the close of the seventh century, was a strenuous opponent of the iconoclasm of Leo the Isaurian, and suffered grievous persecution in consequence. He composed a work which he entitled the Fount of Knowledge, (pêgê gnôseôs). He begins with a short exposition of (Aristotelian) Ontology, connects with this his refutation of heresy, and concludes with a systematic exposition of the orthodox teaching, under the title De Fide Orthodoxa. In this work he declares he will not set down anything of his own, but will merely bring together, and arrange systematically, what has been the teaching of holy and learned men. In this undertaking Philosophy, and more especially Logic and Ontology, will give efficient aid, for which reason, he styles Philosophy the Ancilla theologiae. This work has been held in high esteem in the East, even to our day; the scholastics of the West, too, have been largely influenced by it in the exposition of their theological doctrines.

<< ======= >>

{1} According to "Dionysius," the following are the degrees of the ascending scale which leads to God. First we have the spirit or reason, more general than reason is sensation, more general than sensation is life, more general than life is being, more general than being is the Good, and lastly, above the Good is the Divine.