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The pseudo-Dionysius: precursor of Renaissance humanism

Tuesday, 4 Oct 2016

The pseudo-Dionysius on Dr John Dunn. The pseudo-Dionysius’ return to God is in many respects an epistemological analysis of Gregory of Nyssa’s metaphorical portrayal of ecstasy, as the bride’s return to her lover, in Homilies on the Song of Songs.

As so often in the Platonic underground, transfigurative light is the metaphor of choice. Thus Dionysius states in The Celestial Hierarchy:

We must lift up the immaterial and steady eyes of our minds to that outpouring of Light which is so primal, indeed much more so, and which comes from that source of divinity, I mean the Father. This is the Light which, by way of representative symbols, makes known to us the most blessed hierarchies among the angels. But we need to rise from this outpouring of illumination so as to come to the simple ray of Light itself.1
That‘simple ray of light’, the metaphorical moment of epoptika, will be in sight when all interpretive concepts have been abandoned through their ‘unknowing’.

It is in a state of ‘unknowing’ that the experience of silent union with the divine occurs. In The Mystical Theology, Dionysius provides an apt description, which reminds us of the epistemological struggle that Dante would later face in his poetry. we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing.2
Dionysius meant by speechless the abandonment of all claims to an objective assessment of truth, or the denial that we can exhaust the truth in its formulation. This so-called negative theology, however, is not to be identified with irrationalism, or indifference to the rules of logic in the formulation of knowledge.

Throughout The Divine Names and The Mystical Theology Dionysius expanded all conceptions of God beyond any contingencies. What we find in the text is not the description of an image or sense of God that may be thought of as a thing or experience amongst others, which would be nothing other than Jehovianism. Dionysius bursts through this limitation in an expansion of all images of the inscrutable One to a point beyond conception, out of the reach of every rational process. This was an exploration of the divinity of man to be found internally (àla Proclus) and also in the act of imagination, as in Dante.

It becomes clear in reading Dionysius that he did not hope to offer the reader an imaginable Jehovah to praise, something that may be chosen, but rather to show the very nature of human life as praise. This is a humanism, in which such a hymn of praise lies at the very heart of human life and which no single word may encompass because it is evidenced by the very forming of a word, by the very fact of conceiving and, indeed, by the inescapable fact of being human.

Forming a word, the fact of conceiving, these are the imaginative processes and creativity which lie at the heart of what it means to be human; observations echoed centuries later by Dante.

In conceiving of doing something we already do that which we do at all times and in becoming conscious of this activity and what it means to conceive of being at all we find the ever expanding possibility for joy in praise of God through all things. Though in a strictly non-theological sense, these are themes that would be picked up again by Heidegger in the twentieth century.

This praise is given by returning all conceptions, all images, to their own ineffable truth, beyond conception.

Although the affirmations of The Divine Names are always followed immediately by the denial of their image, it is in The Mystical Theology that we find denial expressed most explicitly. In the first chapter

Dionysius advises the reader that ‘by an undivided and absolute abandonment of yourself and everything, shedding all and freed from all, you will be uplifted to the ray of the divine shadow which is above everything that is’. 3

Dionysius’ method of affirmation and denial is not to be taken as two chronological activities, but as a single activity beyond words. Praise of God is affirmation and denial, both at once and neither. To put it differently, our affirmation of all things must be so complete as to leave no space for denial and therefore be beyond any image of affirmation, or rather, beyond any affirmation of particular images and denial of others. Fundamentally, we must deny ourselves in order to be fully affirmed. In other words, our life can only be in complete relation, so in order to live as such we must deny any images of ourselves or ourselves in any image and engage with that which surrounds us.

In this sense, the metaphor of Gregory of Nyssa holds, i.e. in the momentary ecstasy of union with a lover, the bride loses herself completely.

There is an annihilation of all conceptual idols of God and a readiness to be freed from any conceptual absolutisation in an acceptance of unknowing as the sole category of knowledge.

In On Learned Ignorance Nicholas of Cusa similarly reminds us that ‘the theology of negation is so necessary to the theology of affirmation that without it God would not be worshipped as the infinite God but as creature; and such worship is idolatry, for it gives to an image that which belongs only to truth itself.’ 4

To worship God as a creature is Jehovianism. It is in clinging to images that we distance ourselves from an engagement with reality and the ultimate remedy for this is neither in seeking the truth of an image by fixating upon it nor by attempting to imagine truth as separate from it,but by giving oneself over to that which we are given at every moment. Only in this mode of pure relation may we be present at all times and truly speak of ourselves as being human as the image of the imageless, ‘made in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27).

This makes the pseudo-Dionysius a precursor of Renaissance humanism. His mode of perception valued the human most highly, not by seeing a lack of value in other things or by idolising the image of the human, but precisely because the truly human is the capacity to see value in all things.

John Scotus Eriugena

The work of John Scotus Eriugena served as the primary channel of Dionysian thought through his translation of the corpus and appropriation of its content into a philosophical system. Due to the unintelligibility of Hilduin's translation, Charles the Bald commissioned John Scotus Eriugena to make a fresh translation in 862 C.E. Eriugena revised this translation several times and the papal librarian, Anastasius brought out a further revision in 875 C.E. This translation of the entire corpus was widely used in the twelfth century to understand Dionysian thought.In addition, Eriugena added a commentary to the corpus and translated other works from Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Nyssa. His own thought was an attempt to harmonize East and West in a new philosophy by incorporating the Greek sources into the Periphyseon. In many cases Eriugena's thought and that of Pseudo-Dionysius went hand in hand.

1. Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibhéid and Paul Rorem, New Jersey: Paulist Press, New edition edition (1 Jan. 1987), p.145-6.
2. ibid. p.139.
3. ibid. p.135.
4. Nicholas of Cusa, Selected Spiritual Writings, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1997, p.126.

© John Dunn.

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