Dionysius the Areopagite

Proclus and the mysterious writings of [Pseudo]Dionysius the Areopagite took the work of Plotinus and lessened the appearance of pantheism while also making it sound Christian.

A series of books appeared around 500 AD claiming to be authored by Dionysius the Areopagite, a disciple of St. Paul. These writings showed a Neoplatonic influence mixed with a Christian view. They were translated into Latin and other languages, and they were influential throughout the Middle Ages for both Christian and Islamic mystics. But historians believe that the author, or authors, used this name as a pseudonym.

In Dionysius, God is definitely transcendental and independent of creation. Though creation is like the emanation of Light, manifesting varying degrees of divine goodness, God is distinguished from creation by being its Creator. And God established a hierarchy of heavenly beings between Himself and man. Though all creation comes out of Godís own Being, there are varying degrees of perfect Goodness, with God Himself at the summit. God inspires love in creation and is ultimately responsible for its relative intelligence and beauty, and God attracts beings to Himself by His Goodness and Love. Dionysius also argued that God must actually possess the most perfect attributes imaginable, such as ultimate Goodness, Love, Wisdom, Beauty, etc. These highest Attributes are the true Names of God. For example, God is [ultimate] Goodness, Beauty, etc. Whatever fine qualities we find in the world must have their corresponding source on higher levels, and God the Highest must possess the very perfection of these qualities. Though the very Highest Attributes, or Names, are those which are not found in creation at all, such as the Absolute, the Ineffible, the Ultimate, the Highest, and the One. Next there are those Attributes which can be found in the world to varying degrees, such as Goodness, Wisdom and Beauty. This digression shows how a few subtle changes in the system of Plotinus can be attractive, and Plotinus added with Dionysius became quite inspiring to later mystical wisdom teachings in both Christianity and Islam. But let us return back to Plotinus.

The writings of Pseudo-Dionysius describe God as emanating throughout creation but also transcendental beyond creation. The idea of divine emanation shows a Plotinus influence, but Dionysius is also concerned that God not be reduced to pantheism - whereby God is none other than all of creation. So the writings insist on a firm distinction between God the Absolute and God emanating in creation, defending both views as non-contradictory. Dionysius definitely has a Neoplatonic tone, yet at the same time it certainly sounds Christian and defends the doctrine of God as Creator. The writings also make a coherent cosmological exposition involving the origination of creation, distinct attributes of the divine, and a hierarchy of beings. Well thought arguments and explanations regarding evil are also presented.

Dionysius says that all things, or all beings, come from the same source which is God. Yet God is not merely the Creator, with creation being absolutely separate from His Being. All beings are emanations of God Himself, though the perfected quality of their being is relative in varying degrees of descension or distance. God is both transcendent from and immanent in creation. His transcendence, which is God in Himself, is undiluted by the relative creation. God thus remains in His Mystery or Absolute Essence which is ineffable and incomprehensible to man. Yet God is also immanent in that all things are God, in a relative or lesser sense, for all things are emanations of the Divine Being and thus partake of God's Essence. Creation comes forth from the Qualities of God's own Being.

Creation is distinct from the Absolute Being of God, yet creation is a reflection of what God truly is, though creation reveals relative degrees of perfection. The first level of creation, then, out from the Absolute Essence, are the Qualities of God. These are the perfect divine Qualities, which are also the Angels. Next is the emanation of divine qualities as expressed through man and other parts of creation, though not necessarily in perfection. Man has the capacity to perfect the divine qualities, but he may also ignore them and descend into the darkness. Though God eventually attracts all beings back to Himself by His Goodness and Love.

Man has the capacity to understand God, as well as to be closer to God's perfection. Although man cannot comprehend the Absolute Essence or ultimate truth of God, he can know the divine Qualities of God as expressed through creation. This knowledge, though, is not attained by reasoning or logic. It is attained by the direct knowledge of oneself, the perfect qualities inherent in man as potential. Man can know the divine Qualities in himself, always within as potential, if he meditates on his deepest nature of being, and he can also know the divine Qualities from the beauty of nature. In this way the divine Qualities are known as the Names of God. God is thus known as Goodness, Love, Wisdom, Beauty, Light, Life, Being and Unity. Man has these names only as derived from God, in more or less degree. And unlike the Angels, who possess only one quality in their respective uniqueness, man has the potential to actualize all of God's Qualities. Thus man has a special function in creation, to have full knowledge of God's immanence and to be God's Qualities in some degree of perfection.

Man can increase his knowledge of God's Universal Attributes, but the Absolute Unity is beyond finite, distinguishable knowledge. Two major aspects of God are thus distinguished: the undifferentiated and the differentiated. The undifferentiated is above and beyond the Christian triad, the various Qualities or Angels, and the manifested emanations. Here God is unknowable and approachable only by agnosia or mystical unknowing. But from the undifferentiated Mystery or Absolute Unity, God becomes differentiated and knowable as the emanating Qualities of Beauty, Love, Goodness, Wisdom, Power, and all the other universal aspects of His Being. As we approach these Qualities or Names, through prayer of an open receptive mind, and as we reflect these as far as possible, we come closer to union with God. This approach is called the via affirmativa or positive path.

The first or primary Name of God is Being, though Divine Being is equivalent to Unity, Good and Perfection. The Names are distinct in our conceptional thinking but really the same in Essence. Other conceptions or Names are also distinguishable yet equivalent in the Divine Essence, such as Light, Love and Beauty, as well as Power, Wisdom and Justice. All of these Names or Qualities are pre-subsisting in God's super-essential Unity of Being.

Dionysius still suggests caution in our conceptions of God, though, to avoid thinking of God in terms of man. Man is a relative reflection of God, but it would be wrong to think of God as a reflection of man. So we can acquire some degree of an affirmative knowledge about God's Qualities, based on our self-experience, but we cannot necessarily assume that God is actually like this. It's just the best we can do to acquire divine knowledge. In other words, God the Absolute is still beyond our rational comprehension - based on what we know from ourselves and world experience.

Therefore, a true knowledge of God must involve a method of denial, as well as affirmation. This is the via negativa approach to God, which is to complement the positive approach. That is, we must deny that God Himself is like what we think He is. We can get close to a true knowledge of God, as with the Names, but divine knowledge can never be absolute, for God Himself is beyond any conceptualization or imagination. He is beyond the knowable; He is the Unknowable. So God the Absolute can only be approached in the unknowing, as the Mystery of Being, and as we approach closer to God in meditation our mind is evermore blinded by the Unknowing, by the Light beyond comprehension.

So, also important to divine knowledge is a negative process of remotion, a term used by Proclus (410-485 AD), whereby the mind first denies about God whatever is least agreeable with His presumed goodness. Then more and more possible attributes are removed from our conception of God, following the premise that God cannot be like finite creatures. Near the end of this process, all that will remain in our conception of God will be just those attributes which seem to be beyond creature or human perfection. Finally, God is unknowable. Yet although the knowledge of God in His Absolute Essence is beyond comprehension, man can experience the Divine Essence in deep mystical unity beyond thought and name. In this divine mystical experience, though, there is no conceptualization and hence no knowledge as philosophers demand.

Dionysius follows the Neoplatonic explanation of evil, whereby evil is essentially denied as being some existing power in itself. Since God is the ultimate reality and cause of all things, any real power of evil would have to come from God. But since God must be good, or at least the source of good, it is contradictory to believe that evil would come from God as well. The Unitive Being of God could not be both good and evil, nor could both good and evil emanate from the same Being. Therefore, evil has no real being, no real existence, for all being is from God the One Being. In essence, God and Being are the same, so if the Being of God is good, there can be no being that is evil. Or in other words, since God is the source of all being, and since God is good, there can be no being that is evil.

But still, the apparency of evil, or lack of good, needs explanation. What appears to be evil, in Dionysius's view, is the result of a lack or relative absence of being. This relative lack of being is possible because of God's Light becoming evermore weak in its infinite extension. Creation is an emanation of Divine Being, and Goodness, but the emanation gets weaker as it extends ever further outward from the Absolute Source, much like the dissipation of light over distance. We will thus find less good, less beauty, less unity, less order and harmony in some parts of creation.

A deficiency of Being amounts to a deficiency of Good, and vice versa. This logically follows the major premise, or Principle, that Being is Good, so that nothing being, or with Being, could possibly be without Good. It follows then that anything being must participate at least some in Being Good, and thus evil cannot truly be, for evil is by definition without good. No good, no existence The very concept of evil as a non-good power or principle would, therefore, contradict the intuited premises that all Being and Power is God and that God is Good. So if God is the Absolute Being in which all beings are embraced, and if God is Good, then no being can be evil or without Good.

Evil is just a word to represent what is relatively lacking in the Good, but evil has no reality or essence in itself. Evil is just a word for a deficiency of good, in the same way that blindness is the deficiency of sight rather than something real in opposition to sight. Thus, beings can be good in some respects but deficient in good in other respects, so our attribution of evil is just in those instances of deficient good. In the same way, ugliness is just a deficiency or absence of divine beauty, because the thing is further removed from the Divine Being. Thus, evil is only apparent and meaningful as an absence of good, and it is only temporary rather than eternal.

Yet, however bad things or people appear to be, there is always at least some small spark of goodness everywhere in creation, for nothing can really be unless it is sustained by the Divine Being, or emanating from the divine, or within the divine immanence. So there is always at least some good in all creation. And the spiritual work of man is to unfold his immanent divinity, his divine potential, to know and return ever closer to the divine Source.

All manifestation is of the divine emanation, ultimately coming from the Divine Essence itself but also mediated by one or more of the divine Ideas. These Ideas are also known as the Names, the Divine Distinctions or the Differentiated, the Super-essentials, the Divine Attributes or Qualities, the Perfections, and the Divine Principles. These are Differentiated Forms of the Undifferentiated, Formless, Ineffable Essence All Divine Ideas, or Principles, are necessary and per-subsistent in the Absolute Super-essential One, the Formless Source In the Absolute One this multiplicity of Distinctions are one and without distinction, yet they become distinguished as Unique Ideas or Principles at the first stage of divine emanation. The Names are distinctions representing the Principles per-subsistent in the Ineffable One, yet in the Absolute One there are no distinctions So there are many distinct Names of God, yet in the One God these are all the same. The absolute Deity cannot possibly be described, and we should not even attempt to intellectually know the Absolute except by a mystical unknowing.

The Absolute Undifferentiated One is even above and beyond the Blessed Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity can be interpreted, respectively, as the Absolute Undifferentiated Source or Cause, the Divine Word or unity of Perfections, and the Divinity or Good emanating throughout all creation in varying degrees. God, the Father, is the Creator, Cause and Giver of Life, Goodness, Wisdom and Beauty, in which all creation participates

The Divine Ideas or Principles are the perfect Forms, in which any creation necessarily participates to some degree. These Divine Ideas are the cause and principle of all things. Thus, Being is the Principle of all beings, life is of the Life, goodness is of the Good, beauty is of the Beautiful, order is Order, harmony is of Harmony, etc The lower is always embraced by the Higher.

The highest knowing of God, besides Being Itself, is Good and Beauty. Beauty may be intellectually regarded as coming from the Good, but they are essentially the same. All things participate in Good and Beauty, and all things desire Good and Beauty. All things come from It, are in It, and move to It. Good and Beauty are the Cause, the Being, and the Final End-Aim of all things. Beauty is the cause of all harmony and spender in things. It is thus a power and intelligence, moving things to their unique possible perfection and harmony with all other things. The goal of all beings is Beauty, and Beauty is beloved by each as their Final Cause The Causal Principle of Beauty causes things to desire their own unique beauty. All things are brought into being for the sake of their final beauty, and Beauty is Paradigm of all form receiving of Beauty.

The Good unites and binds things together, and It attracts all to Itself. The Good unites, bringing things to Unity, just as Beauty brings things to harmony. The Divine Light is another name for Goodness and Beauty. The Light emanates Goodness and Beauty. It is the purifier and illuminator. It is the emanating Spirit of Goodness and Beauty. The sun is the divine symbol and manifestation of the Good and Beautiful. It is the Light of God in manifestation, though it is not God Itself. All invisible Truths have outward reflections. So is the sun like God but not Him. Like God, the sun illuminates all but remains itself, and a lack of light in things does not imply a weakness in the light but reveals a weakness or lack in its receptivity

This is central in the teachings of Dionysius, that a lack in the goodness and harmonious beauty in things does not suggest an impotence in the divine power and intelligence, but rather reveals a weakness in the receptivity of the imperfect being. The explanation for this weakness is that creation falls away from the Source of Light, somehow accidentally, so it becomes weak in its perception of the Good or weak in its reception of the Good. But how can there be such a falling, or weakness, in the Light of Divine Power? Plotinus says that the Divine Light becomes weaker in its necessary extension, such that some of creation will necessarily be less than perfect though eventually drawn bask to Perfection It seems that Dionysius accepts this explanation, but the emphasis of Dionysius places beings responsible for their own falling and their lack of Goodness and Beauty, caused by a lack in their receptivity to the all-Good and Beautiful Light.

Dionysius distinguishes three kinds of knowledge: that of the senses, of the intellect, and of mystical unknowing - related to the soul's ascension bask to God. Sense knowledge would be the lowest, yet it serves two main functions One is to reveal the particular manifest ions of Divine Being in their sensuous forms, and the other is to awaken the mind to seek intelligible knowledge. So because of what we find through the senses, our minds are naturally led to intellectual inquires regarding the eternal Principles, Causes and Paradigm Ideas in which sensed things must participate Knowledge of these Divine Forms is possible because of the intellectual powers of the soul - which values most the clear and certain Truths beyond sense perception But just as the senses have no capacity to know the Divine Principles such as Beauty, the soul intellect has no capacity to know the Absolute Unity or Deity Itself. So the intellectual powers are surpassed when the soul contemplates the Ineffable Light in the final union of Unknowing. This would be pure identification with the Absolute but beyond intelligible thought.

Dionysius says that the fallen angels, or daimones, are responsible for the temporal dis-unity and dis-harmony in creation. Whereas Divine Angels move beings toward Unity, by the Power of Good, Beauty and Love, the daimones split creation into multiplicity without regard to unity. The daimones are also responsible for irrational passions. They still have some Good in them and will eventually be brought bask to the Good, but they are weak in perceiving the Good as their own truth and they desire that which is not real. So they lack in being fully Good, whereas Divine Angels are fully Good and fully perceive the Good. Dionysius also associates the daimones with matter, the lowest aspect of creation, and the daimones move towards matter rather than the Light transcending matter.

This would explain the imperfect human tendency towards materialism and physical passions. Our minds and lower nature may become influenced by the daimones, following the way away from Divine Union. So it possible that some may become exemplars of the daimonic energy and show a lack in divine knowledge, aspiring towards the unreal and being unreceptive to the Good. This is the falling away from Unity. But the Divine Goodness eventually brings all beings bask to the Truth of Being, being Good. This is the Divine Aspiration, which is really God Himself bringing Himself bask to Unity in the temporal world. So, we are not fully responsible for our falling, our lack of Unity, in that we are under the influence of daimonic energies. Yet we are responsible for our return to the Good, the Unity, in that we must become receptive, by our own will, to the Divine Principles or Qualities. We cannot just rely on Divine Providence to froze us bask to Unity; rather, we must ourselves make the turn to God, though this act is really God Himself inspiring our return.