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.

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Summarizing Pseudo-Dionysius’ The Divine Names: Part 1

I’ve recently started reading Pseudo-Dionysius'(PD) The Divine Names with the intent of including him in a history of philosophy syllabus.  What I have read and known regarding PD has all been either through quotes from Thomas Aquinas and from secondary source describing his views and influences.  What I found was very interesting.  PD’s work is at once insightful into the deep hiddenness of the divine while also very beautifully written in a poetic style.  It smacks of the style of the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.

The first portion of The Divine Names is devoted to establishing PD’s approach to philosophical theology.  PD holds a very neo-Platonic view of the deity.  The deity, for PD is wholly other and nigh completely inaccessible to human reasoning.  He expresses deep gratitude for the scriptures in giving we mere human beings something to go on in understanding the divine.  The idea is, if it hadn’t been for scripture, we wouldn’t be able to even say anything true about the deity.

So Pseudo-Dionysius sets up the problem of the work as follows:

  1. All we can (naturally) know about God is that he is beyond human conceptualization.
  2. But the scriptures say true things about God, which inform us about the divine nature.

The puzzle to be considered in the rest of the work is how to make sense of all the true statements the scriptures make about God when we are in such a state of poverty with respect to knowledge of the divine.

So how do we make sense of useful (and true) talk of a deity that is radically beyond natural human cognition?  Hopefully PD will inform us as we journey through his work.

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