Pseudo-Dionysius’ Divine Names: Chapter 3

In this part of my series I will be discussing Chapter 3 of the Divine Names. (First entry here) Chapter 3 of the Divine Names is a bit more disappointing for anyone looking for philosophical content.  In Chapter 3 Pseudo-Dionysius spends most of his time talking and bragging about his teacher Hierotheus.  But there is some interesting reflection on prayer in this chapter that is worth talking about.  Early in the chapter Pseudo-Dionysius reflects on prayer and how to make sense of it having an effect.

He suggests that before any inquiy into the divine should be preceded by “stretch[ing] ouselves prayerfully upward.”  It is here that he gives two interesting analogies to attempt to understand the power of prayer.

The problem is that we are praying to a God that is, for P-D, radically transcendent, but also radically immovable and unchanging.  So then prayer should be thought of, for P-D, as something like the dance that moved the mountain.

Have you heard this story?  A man has a house in the valley, and decides that his house is too close to the mountain.  He goes to a sage and asks him how he can move the mountain.  The sage tells him to pack his entire house up, place it on his back, and do a special dance.  The man follows these instructions and, lo and behold, the mountain is moved far from his house.  The dance: face the mountain, and take two steps backward, the one step forward and repeat.

P-D thinks of prayer much like this special dance:

<blockquote>Picture ourselves aboard a boat.  There are hawsers joining it to soe rock.  We take hold of them and pull on them, and it is as if we were dragging the rock to us when in fact we are hauling ourselves and our boat toward a rock.  And, from another point of view, when someone on the boat pushes away the rock which is on the shore he will have no effect on the rock, which stands immovable, but will make space between it and himself, and the more he pushes the greater will be the space.</blockquote>

<blockquote>That is why we must begin with a prayer before everything we do, but especially when we are about to taalk of God.  We will not pull down to ourselves that power which is both everywhere and yet nowhere, but by divine reminders and invocations we may commend ourselves to it and be joined to it.</blockquote>

The idea here is that prayer is a thing that draws us nearer to the divine.  This is by God’s power and not by ours.  We don’t harm the independence and unchangeability of God by engaging in prayer.  Instead prayer is a way of pulling ourselves closer to God.

We ought to pray before engaging in reflection on the divine nature, bringing ourselves closer to the divine light which may help us understand.

The only other thing of philosophical interest here is a view of the degree of discomfort Pseud0-Dionysius has with saying anything about God.  He would almost be Wittgensteinian about the whole thing if it weren’t for the fact of his deep confidence that the scriptures are divinely revealed and say true things about God.  This is all that is keeping Dionysius on the task of talking about the divine at all.  If Pseudo-Dionysius were to live in an age without divine revelation, he would simply prefer to pass over such things in silence.  Next time we’ll break the silence with P-D and finally get into the bulk of the theological theorizing.

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Peace be with you.
-JS

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Pseudo-Dionysius’ Divine Names: Summary of Chapter 2

Chapter 2 is probably the most difficult in the whole work (to this point at least).  Chapter 3 discusses Pseudo-Dionysius deference to Hierotheus, after which P-D discusses specific divine attributes.   But we are still at a very high level of abstraction in chapter 2.  We’re trying to make sense of sometimes, with some concepts, applying concepts to God as an undifferentiated whole while sometimes applying concepts to God in a differentiating way.  The most key example of such concepts are the trinitarian aspects of the deity.  God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but these are applied to the deity as a distinction within the Godhead.  This chapter is meant to make sense of these concepts.  The bulk of the argumentative work in this chapter is done by a series of analogies (some of which have become familiar: see this post).

An interesting analogy he uses to make sense of unity and differentiation in this radically unknown and transcendent deity we’ve established already in the work.  An analogy which we didn’t discuss earlier which P-D brings up is the analogy of lights in a house.  Lights in a house are all distinct, but together they can form a single, undifferentiated light.  This is meant to help us see that a similar thing can be true of the deity.  Of course, with the light analogy (as with his other analogies in this chapter) the possibility of unity and distinction depends on the thing in question having parts.  One way of making the analogy work would be to understand that P-D is probably thinking about light in a very different way than we think of it.  Light, for P-D, won’t be a phenomena that results from a bunch of photons gathering or moving in particular direction.  In fact, it’s probably reasonable to think that light isn’t made up of parts but is some kind of irreducible continuous reality.  If this is the analogy, we can think of it as a thought experiment.  If we can make sense of the possibility of this being the way light works, we can make sense (to some extent) of the possibility of the kind of unity and differentiation in the trinity.  There is still theoretical work that hasn’t been done (the analogy still requires the different parts of the distinct lights), but it at least gets us some distance toward the conclusion he wants, that we can (to some very limited extent) make sense of this aspect of a radically inaccessible deity.

The point of this chapter is to so make sense.  We are meant to do our due deference to the radical inaccessiblity of the deity while finding room to say true things about.  In Chapter 3 P-D will discuss his reliance on the work of Hierotheus, after which Chapter 4 will finally get into specifics about the attributes of the divine.

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Peace be with you.
-JS

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Thoughts on Pseudo-Dionysius’ Divine Names Part 2: Theological Analogies

So I’m working my way through Pseudo-Dionysius’ Divine Names, posting my summaries and various thoughts about the work here.  Today I will be briefly discussing some examples and analogies that Pseudo-Dionysius uses for aspects of the divine reality.

What surprised me when reading The Divine Names was the down to earth and familiar sounding nature of his examples.  If you’ve ever been given the circle analogy in explanation of how God can have different properties, that analogy is in The Divine Names.  There are other analogies that you probably haven’t heard which are deeply familiar seeming.  Let’s go over a couple and try to understand their upshot.

First, the circle analogy.  In the context it appears in the work it’s difficult to see it’s upshot.  But it goes as follows:

It is according to these gifts that the [supreme] things which are participated in, but which do not themselves participate [in anything higher], are praised  though the participations and those who participate.  Now this is unified and one and common to the whole divinity, that the entire wholeness is participated in by each of those who participate in it; none participates in only a part.  It is rather like the case of a circle.  The center point of the circle is shared by the surrounding radii.  Or take the example of a seal.  There are numerous impressions of the seal and these all have a share in the original prototype; it is the same whole seal in each of the impressions and none participates in only a part.

As best I can tell, the circle and the seal analogy are here to help explain one thing  .  Perhaps we are explaining the fact that a trinitarian deity may have each of the attributes off the divine while not being melded into one divine person.  The idea is that two different things (like a circle and the radii) can share the same numerically identical property(a center point) without being turned into one.  But his point is stronger.  He wants his examples to show that a reality can be accurately described as having certain properties despite being differentiated.  The circle remains an undifferentiated whole despite being accurately described as having a center point and accurately described as having radii which share that center point.  This is meant to help us be able to see how we might be able to accurately affirm things of a perfectly simple deity.

In the next installation I’ll summarize this second portion I’ve read.

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Peace be with you.
-JS

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Pseudo-Dionysius and Others: Academic Dishonesty?

I’m reading some Pseudo-Dionysius this summer.  Pseudo-Dionysius had a deep effect on the development of medieval philosophy.  But Pseudo-Dionysius is a fake.  He wrote his works masquerading as Dionysius the Areopagite, a Greek philosopher converted by Paul’s sermon on Mars hill in Paul’s discussion of the unknown god.  The medievals didn’t know this, and payed deep homage to Pseudo-D’s work.  Pseudo-D wrote beautiful mystical theology that was influenced deeply by neo-Platonism, a philosophical movement that emphasized the otherness and unknowability of God.

I think his work has a lot of value and should be appreciated by anyone looking to understand medieval theology and philosophy in any sort of deep way.  But this raises the question: Ought Pseudo-Dionysius to have written his works?  At first it seems like a clear case of academic dishonesty that we, in the modern world, are ultra-sensitive to.  But before the modern era such issues were less stringent.  There were all sorts of categories of work that were accepted in pre-modern times as perfectly honest works that were derivative works.  For example, there were whole genres of work that would be illegal today that were accepted as important forms of literature in the middle ages.  There were commentaries, in which you heavily quoted from another work and then gave original thoughts about the arguments (like a reaction video but in text).  There were even works where you just collected a ton of quotes on the same subject together, being a curated collection of quotes from others.  These are all fine, and I think a reasonable person would consider them ethical.

But then there are works like Pseudo-Dionysius.  If we are looking at it from the outside in terms of whether it should exist, it’s tempting to place it in the same kind of category as the other fake works from the first several centuries of the church like the various gnostic “gospels”.  It seems we instinctively see these very late gospels that falsely claim authorship as dishonest  works.

But I’m not so sure with Pseudo-Dionysius.  Pseudo-Dionysius work is very important in western history.  But can a work be both academically dishonest and deeply important to the history of western philosophy?  Next time I’ll talk about what’s good about Pseudo-Dionysius’ work, and consider this more closely

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Peace be with you.
-JS