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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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.

Come back every MWF for more discussion of philosophy, pop culture, society and their interaction!

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